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Kirk Watson

Early voting for primary runoffs starts tomorrow

Remember the runoffs? It’s time we settle who our nominees are.

Who can vote in the runoffs?

Texas has open primaries, meaning you don’t have to be a registered member of either party to cast a ballot in a primary runoff. You can check your voter registration status here. But you can only vote in one party’s primary, and which one might depend on how you voted in the first round of the primaries in March. People who voted in the March 3 primary are only able to vote in that same party’s runoff election, as they have affiliated themselves with that given party for that calendar year. Those who did not participate in the March primary are able to vote in either primary runoff election.

What’s different this year?

The primaries were originally scheduled for May, but Abbott delayed them until July because of the coronavirus. Abbott also doubled the length of the early voting period for the July primary runoff elections in a move to aimed at easing crowds at the polls during the pandemic. Early voting runs from Monday through July 10.

“It is necessary to increase the number of days in which polling locations will be open during the early voting period, such that election officials can implement appropriate social distancing and safe hygiene practices,” Abbott wrote in a May proclamation.

For Harris County, the early voting map of locations with wait times is here. Please take advantage of a less-busy location if you can. The traditional PDF with the map and hours is here. Please note the new and changed locations. Please also note that there is no voting on Friday, July 3 and Saturday, July 4, due to the holiday. Voting hours are extended on Sunday, July 5 (10 to 7, instead of the usual 1 to 6) and on the last day, Friday, July 10 (7 AM to 10 PM). All other days are 7 AM to 7 PM. We should be able to get in and out safely, and you will need to bring a mask. See here for the Harris County Clerk’s SAFE principles.

My Runoff Reminder series will remind you who’s running: Statewide, Congress, SBOE and State Senate, State House, select county races, and select judicial races. Links to interviews and Q&As are in there as well.

The Chron re-ran a bunch of its endorsements on Friday:

Mike Siegel, CD10
Chrysta Castañeda, Railroad Commissioner
Michelle Palmer, SBOE6
Akilah Bacy, HD138
Rep. Harold Dutton, HD142
Rep. Anna Eastman, HD148

They had endorsed Royce West for Senate in March, and they reran that endorsement on Saturday. (UPDATE: They reran their endorsement of Michael Moore for Commissioners Court, Precinct 3, this morning.)

Also on the ballot for this election: the special election in SD14 to succeed Kirk Watson. I have interviews with the two candidates of interest, Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, and former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt. Please give them a listen if you live in this district. I expect this will go to a runoff, which I hope will not need to endure a delay like the May elections did.

All the elections for July 14 are important, but just as important is that this will serve in many ways as a dry run for November, both in terms of handling a higher volume of mail ballots and also in terms of making the in person voting process as safe as it can be in this pandemic. I was on a conference call a week or so ago with a national group, the Voter Protection Corps, which presented a report for policymakers with concrete steps to protect in-person voting and meet the equal access to voting requirements enshrined in federal law and the U.S. Constitution. Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins was one of the presenters in that call. You can see a summary of the call with highlights from the report here. I will be voting in person for this election, but however you do it please take the steps you need to in order to be safe.

We don’t know enough about what’s happening at nursing homes

We’ve talked before about two of the main coronavirus hotspot types in Texas, prisons and meat processing plants. Now we’re going to talk about that third type, nursing homes.

As the death toll grows at Texas nursing homes, so has the number of requests for information kept by state health officials that would reveal which long-term care facilities have suffered coronavirus outbreaks during the worst pandemic in generations.

But the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which regulates nursing homes and assisted living facilities, is attempting to keep its records secret, despite calls for more transparency from open-government advocates, some Texas lawmakers and family members worried about vulnerable residents.

“The public is being left in the dark, and we’re losing control of our ability to oversee the operations of our government,” said Joe Larsen, a lawyer with the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, which published an open letter last month urging the health commission to release its records on nursing home infections.

In a May 4 letter to the Texas Attorney General’s Office, Carey Smith, a lawyer representing the health commission, said the agency has received more than two dozen public records requests for nursing home data about coronavirus infections, but that federal and state laws prohibit the release of the information because it might identify infected residents and violate their privacy.

However, Texas legislators who wrote one of the laws cited by Smith said it doesn’t prohibit officials from releasing statistical information about COVID-19 in nursing homes.

“The statute was not intended to create a blanket protection for all health-related information,” said former Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who authored the bill in the Texas Senate last year.

The sponsor of the bill in the Texas House, Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, said releasing statistical data from nursing homes could benefit both consumers and government authorities. And, like Watson, he said the bill they passed doesn’t prevent state officials from releasing that information.

“So long as you can’t get personal identifying information I don’t see why the current rules and statutes that we have don’t already allow that information to be released,” Capriglione said.

[…]

After facing criticism from families and advocates of nursing home residents, Texas began releasing statewide statistics that show the total number of coronavirus deaths at nursing homes, which provide round-the-clock care, and assisted living facilities, which are less intensive.

As of [May 1], 478 COVID-19 deaths — nearly half of the 1,042 reported in Texas — were at nursing homes or assisted living centers, records show.

But state health officials haven’t disclosed infection rates for each location, which has stymied families trying to protect their relatives. The lack of information also leaves hospice workers and other contract caregivers in the dark.

That story was from early May. Since then, we have gotten more numbers from the state.

More than 3,000 Texas nursing home residents have tested positive for the new coronavirus, as well as nearly 400 assisted living facility residents, according to data released Friday by the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Among the reported 311 nursing homes with confirmed cases, 3,011 residents have tested positive and 490 have died. Another 494 residents have recovered, according to the data. At 112 assisted living facilities in Texas with at least one confirmed coronavirus case, 382 residents have tested positive for the virus, and 95 have died.

Statewide, 1,272 people have died, but it was unclear late Friday if all of the long-term care facility patients’ deaths were included in that larger figure.

The state had previously released only the number of nursing homes with confirmed cases and fatalities, not the number of people who have tested positive.

The state is still not releasing the names of nursing homes with COVID-19 cases. Many families remain in the dark about whether their loved ones in nursing homes are at risk of exposure.

There are a lot of reasons why we need more and better reporting of this data. For one, just so that the people who have family and friends that live or work at these places can know what’s going on with them. For two, to better identify the places that are not up to standard on health and safety. For three, so we can learn from the places that are doing well as well as the places that are doing poorly, so the overall level of safety and care can be improved. This is not hard to understand, and at least it looks like there’s bipartisan agreement that the existing laws need to be upgraded for the future. Put that on the ever-lengthening to do list for the 2021 Lege.

SD14 special election field is set

There are six candidates in total, but really only two that matter.

Rep. Eddie Rodriguez

Six candidates, including some well-known Austin-area politicians, have filed to run for the July 14 special election to replace retired Democratic state Sen. Kirk Watson, according to the Texas secretary of state’s office.

Candidates had until 5 p.m. Wednesday to file to run for the seat.

State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, a longtime Austin Democrat, and former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt are widely considered the two most prominent candidates for Texas Senate District 14, a historically Democratic seat that covers Bastrop County and parts of Travis County.

Sarah Eckhardt

Rodriguez has served in the House since 2003 and has support from most of Travis County’s state House delegation. And Eckhardt, whose last day as county judge was Tuesday, has helped to oversee the community’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Two Republicans are also running for the Senate seat: Don Zimmerman, a former Austin City Council member, and Waller Thomas Burns II, who initially filed as an independent.

Former Lago Vista City Council member Pat Dixon is running as a Libertarian, while Jeff Ridgeway is running as an independent candidate. Several others, including Austin City Council member Greg Casar, had been eyeing a run but decided not to join the race.

See here, here, and here for the background. This election was also originally scheduled for May and postponed till July due to coronavirus. I say that only the two Democrats matter in this race because SD14 is a safe Democratic seat. I have a very hard time imagining a scenario where either of the two mainstream, broadly popular Democrats who have previously won multiple elections fail to finish in the top two. One of the could win it outright, but if not then these two will be in the runoff. I may reach out to them for interviews – Lord knows, it will be good to talk about electoral politics again – but in the meantime, you voters in SD14 have a clear decision to make, and can’t go wrong either way.

SD14 special election date set

A bit of a surprise, to me at least.

Sen. Kirk Watson

Gov. Greg Abbott has postponed the special election for the Austin area’s Texas Senate District 14 due to the spreading coronavirus pandemic.

The election to replace retiring state Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat leaving office at the end of April, has been moved to July 14, Abbott announced Monday evening. It ordinarily would have been held May 2.

Two candidates have already announced they’re running for the historically Democratic seat: State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, who announced last week that she would resign from her position to run for the Senate. Several others have been eyeing a potential run at the seat.

Abbott’s office said postponing the election “is another step the state is taking to protect health and mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” noting that it was consulting with the secretary of state’s office “on additional strategies to ensure public health in relation to any upcoming election.” It’s unclear whether additional action will be taken to delay municipal elections across the state, which are also slated for May 2.

See here for the announcement of Watson’s resignation, and here and here for the declarations by Rodriguez and Eckhardt. I had been assuming that Abbott would not set a date until after Watson’s resignation was official. Perhaps I was overly influenced by the Sylvia Garcia “intent to resign” saga from 2018, I don’t know. Be that as it may, if there had been a previous announcement of a May 2 special election date, I didn’t see it, and I looked at Greg Abbott’s news releases going back to the date of Watson’s announcement. It may just be that this Trib story is not as clear as it could be, as this tweet demonstrates:

Whatever the case, the proclamation is here. Let’s hope that circumstances do not force it to be pushed back again.

Eckhardt declares for SD14

And now there are two.

Sarah Eckhardt

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt resigned from her position Tuesday ahead of a run for the open seat in the Democrat-leaning Texas Senate District 14.

“I’m leaving the warmth and friendship of public service at the county to seek public service at the state as your next state senator,” Eckhardt said during a tearful speech at the end of a commissioners court meeting. “I’m running to succeed Senator [Kirk] Watson. I can’t fill his shoes, but I am running to succeed him.”

Eckhardt is the second candidate to enter the race to replace retiring state Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat, who will resign from office at the end of April to become the first dean of the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs. Over the weekend, longtime state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, became the first candidate to formally launch a bid for the Senate seat, which covers Bastrop County and parts of Travis County.

[…]

Eckhardt, who was elected Travis County’s first female county judge in 2015, was required under the Texas Constitution to resign from that office before running for the Legislature. Eckhardt and Rodriguez, who has served in the House since 2003, could soon be joined in the race by Austin City Council member Greg Casar, who recently filed a campaign treasurer report for the Senate seat.

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of Eckhardt’s statement. Eckhardt had the tougher decision to make, since Rep. Rodriguez doesn’t have to resign to run for this office; neither will the other candidates, with the possible exceptions of Casar and Pflugerville City Council Member Rudy Metayer. I get to be neutral in this one, they all look fine to me. My best wishes to the voters of SD14 who will not only have to make a choice among all these good candidates, but as is the case with what is essentially a primary among contenders who won’t differ much on the issues, will also have to survive another primary-type election, complete with inevitable runoff. Godspeed, y’all.

Rep. Eddie Rodriguez announces for SD14

Others are sure to follow.

Rep. Eddie Rodriguez

State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, an Austin Democrat, announced Saturday that he is running for Texas Senate District 14.

“It is truly an honor to even be running [for] the Senate,” Rodriguez said at B.D. Riley’s Irish Pub in Austin, where he kicked off his Senate campaign with supporters. “I want to run for the Senate because I want to make Texas a more progressive place for everyone.”

Rodriguez, who has served in the House since 2003, is the first candidate to formally enter the special election for the historically Democratic seat, which will be vacated by retiring state Sen. Kirk Watson, a fellow Austin Democrat, at the end of April. The seat, which covers Bastrop County and parts of Travis County, overlaps with Rodriguez’s House seat.

The special election for the seat hasn’t yet been called by Gov. Greg Abbott. The winner will represent the district for the remainder of the term, which ends in 2023.

Rodriguez, flanked by supporters and a fellow member of the House’s Austin delegation, underscored his experience and the relationships he has built while serving in the House — and briefly outlined what he wants to continue working on if elected to the Senate: increasing access to health care and making “sure the government stays the hell out of our bedroom.”

State Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, introduced Rodriguez before he delivered his remarks, saying the delegation is “100% behind Eddie Rodriguez being the next senator.”

See here for the background. The election will be called by Abbott after Watson’s resignation becomes official, which should put it in November. I know that Rep. Israel had said she was not going to run, as had Rep. Donna Howard, and this makes it sound like none of the other State Reps from Travis County will jump in. Other potential candidates mentioned in the story include Austin City Council member Greg Casar, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt (who has set an agenda item to discuss how her replacement would be named when she resigns as required to run for the legislature), Austin-area attorneys Jose “Chito” Vela and Adam Loewy, and Pflugerville City Council Member Rudy Metayer. And as previously discussed, this is a safe Democratic seat.

What is “safe”?

Saw this on Twitter, and it got me thinking:

AOC isn’t the only person I’ve observed referring to CD28 as “safe” Democratic. This WaPo story from 2019, reprinted in the Trib, calls CD28 “a strongly Democratic district…which gave the president just 38.5 percent of the vote in 2016”. This DMN story has a subhed that calls CD28 “Vast and overwhelmingly Democratic district”, and notes that “Trump lost here by 20 percentage points”. The American Prospect is a bit more circumspect, saying CD28 is “a safely (though not extremely) blue district, with a +9 Democratic lean”, and also noting the 20-point margin for Clinton over Trump in 2016.

But 2016 isn’t the only election we’ve ever had, and the Clinton-Trump matchup isn’t the only data point available. Here’s a broader look at the recent electoral history in CD28:


Year  Candidate    Votes    Pct
===============================
2012  Obama      101,843  60.2%
2012  Romney      65,372  38.6%
2012  Sadler      90,481  55.1%
2012  Cruz        68,096  41.5%
2012  Hampton     93,996  58.5%
2012  Keller      61,954  38.6%

2014  Alameel     41,901  46.6%
2014  Cornyn      42,010  46.7%
2014  Davis       48,451  52.7%
2014  Abbott      41,335  45.0%
2014  Granberg    45,658  51.7%
2014  Richardson  38,775  43.9%

2016  Clinton    109,973  57.8%
2016  Trump       72,479  38.1%
2016  Robinson    95,348  52.6%
2016  Guzman      77,590  42.8%
2016  Burns      102,778  57.1%
2016  Keasler     69,501  38.6%

2018  Beto        97,728  58.7%
2018  Cruz        67,483  40.5%
2018  Valdez      87,007  52.7%
2018  Abbott      75,939  46.0%
2018  Jackson     94,479  58.3%
2018  Keller      63,559  39.2%

Yes, in 2014, John Cornyn topped David Alameel in CD28. To my mind, if it is possible for a candidate of the other party to beat a candidate of your own party in a given district, that district is by definition not “safe”. It’s true that in Presidential years, most Democrats win CD28 comfortably, with the closest call being a win by just under 10 points. But in off years, even factoring out the crapshow that was the Alameel campaign, Dems generally win CD28 by smaller margins.

None of this is to say that CD28 is a swing district. It’s not, and I have no reason to be concerned about it in 2020. But if Trump-versus-Clinton-in-2016 is the gold standard here, I’ll point out that of the six districts Dems are targeting this year, four of them (CDs 02, 10, 22, and 31) were won by Trump by larger margins than Wendy Davis won CD28 by in 2014 and Lupe Valdez won it by in 2018. Different years, different conditions, and different candidates may provide a different perspective.

Another way of looking at this is to see how Democratic CD28 is compared to other Congressional districts represented by Democrats:


Dist  Clinton    Beto
=====================
CD07    48.2%   53.3%
CD32    48.4%   54.9%
CD15    56.2%   57.4%
CD28    57.8%   58.7%
CD34    59.1%   57.7%
CD20    60.2%   66.2%

All other Dem-held districts were at least 63% for Clinton and 70% for Beto. Again, none of this is to say that CD28 is vulnerable. Whoever wins the CD28 primary will be the strong favorite, like 99%+, to win it in November. This is not a comment on that race, but on public perception and objective reality. It’s why I generally try not to make blanket statements like “safe district” but try instead to put a number or two on it, so you have some context to my evaluation. I doubt anyone will adopt this as their style guide, but it’s very much how I prefer to operate.

And I have to say, I might have let this go by if I hadn’t also seen this little gem in the Chronicle story on the announced resignation of State Sen. Kirk Watson:

Abbott soon will have to schedule a special election for the remainder of Watson’s four-year term, which ends in 2022. Watson’s District 14, which mostly lies in Austin, leans Democratic.

“Leans Democratic”??? Here’s that same set of numbers for Watson’s SD14:


Year  Candidate    Votes    Pct
===============================
2012  Obama      193,112  60.2%
2012  Romney     116,001  36.1%
2012  Sadler     187,717  59.4%
2012  Cruz       109,877  34.7%
2012  Hampton    181,614  59.1%
2012  Keller     106,581  34.7%

2014  Alameel    123,058  56.2%
2014  Cornyn      80,818  36.9%
2014  Davis      140,602  63.3%
2014  Abbott      75,206  33.9%
2014  Granberg   127,108  59.7%
2014  Richardson  73,267  34.4%

2016  Clinton    249,999  65.3%
2016  Trump      106,050  27.7%
2016  Robinson   218,449  58.8%
2016  Guzman     124,165  33.4%
2016  Burns      223,599  60.8%
2016  Keasler    120,727  32.8%

2018  Beto       289,357  73.8%
2018  Cruz        98,589  25.1%
2018  Valdez     257,708  66.3%
2018  Abbott     119,889  30.9%
2018  Jackson    264,575  69.4%
2018  Keller     104,375  27.4%

LOL. SD14 “leans” Democratic in the same way that a wrecking ball leans against the side of a building. Data is your friend, people. Use the data. I know I’m tilting against windmills here, but at least you can see why I noticed that tweet.

Sen. Kirk Watson to retire

Well, this was unexpected.

Sen. Kirk Watson

State Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat, is retiring from the Texas Senate.

His resignation is effective at midnight on April 30, the Austin American-Statesman first reported Tuesday. Watson is leaving office to become the first dean of the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs.

“This is a chance to build a world-class public affairs and policy school essentially from the ground up,” Watson said in a statement. “It is transformative work at a creative and ambitious university, located in one of the country’s largest and most diverse cities. … Only a unique opportunity to serve this state — and a compelling platform for that service — would cause me to leave.”

Watson, an attorney and former mayor of the city of Austin, represents Senate District 14, a historically Democratic seat. It covers Bastrop County and parts of Travis County. He was first elected to the seat in 2006, taking office in early 2007.

Watson’s early departure will set off a special election to serve the rest of the term, which will end in 2023. Watson delivered his resignation letter this morning to Gov. Greg Abbott, who will later set the date for a special election.

The race to replace Watson is likely to be a crowded one and could include multiple members of the Texas House’s Austin delegation.

Here’s Watson announcing his departure on Twitter:

Watson was re-elected in 2018 with 72% of the vote, so this is a safe Democratic seat. The special election, which will be for the remainder of this term ending in 2021, will almost certainly be in November, so it won’t be a low-turnout affair, either. I will be shocked if we don’t see at least a couple of current members of the Lege from Travis County take a shot at this. For one, it’s a freebie – you’ll still be on the ballot for your current seat, and won’t need to step down unless you win. For another, opportunities like this don’t come along very often – Watson was first elected in 2006, after all, following the departure of Gonzalo Barrientos. Every State Rep in SD14 should be giving this serious thought.

And if one of the current State Reps eventually wins this, we’ll be in for another round of Special Legislative Elections Happening During A Legislative Session. Assuming no one wins the SD14 special in November, there would be a December runoff. That would mean a special State House election in mid-to-late January, and a runoff if needed in late February or early March. Is it wrong that I’m just a tiny bit giddy about that?

Anyway. Watson was a terrific Senator, and he will be missed. I look forward to seeing him around Houston. Chuck Lindell has a thread with reactions from various potental candidates, and the Statesman and the Chron have more.

Where goes the tax swap plan from here?

We start with the double down.

Showing their usual united front, the state’s “Big Three” political leaders on Friday tried to remake their case for why the Texas Legislature should deliver on long-term, ongoing property tax relief before the session wraps up this month.

They also expressed confidence that they would get the work done — even as House Democrats said they appeared to have the votes to block the lower chamber’s current main vehicle to provide the biggest property tax cut.

“Our goal is really simple: We’re going beyond the point of hoping to reform property taxes to the point where we’re hoping to to deliver true property tax relief through property tax reductions,” Gov. Greg Abbott said at a Capitol press conference Friday afternoon, flanked by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, the Republican leaders of the Senate and House, respectively.

The three reaffirmed their commitment to a proposal that would increase the state sales tax one percentage point, raising about $5 billion per year to lower school district tax rates — which many have seen as a long shot from the start, with lawmakers from both parties skeptical about a sales tax hike.

The proposal has been moving through the Capitol so far in the form of a joint resolution, which needs two-thirds of each chamber to pass — at least 100 votes to pass the House and 21 votes to pass the Senate. If it passed both chambers, the proposal would then land on the November ballot for voters to decide, which leaders in support of the resolution have framed as a more democratic process.

House Joint Resolution 3 — which would ask voters to approve the sales tax swap for property tax relief — and its enabling legislation, House Bill 4621, passed out of the House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday. The tax swap is expected to head to the lower chamber for a debate Tuesday.

The original version of the bill would have used 20% of the increased sales tax revenue to fund schools and 80% for property tax relief. That changed earlier this week, when state Rep. Dan Huberty, a Houston Republican who authored the legislation, tweaked the proposal to instead funnel all new sales tax dollars into property tax relief.

The move seemed to be an effort to bring on some of the Legislature’s more conservative members who had signaled they could be on board with a proposal if the new revenue was entirely dedicated to property tax relief. But it also seemed to solidify Democrats’ opposition to it, especially since the sales tax is regressive, meaning it takes a higher percentage of income from poorer people than richer people. A sales tax swap would raise taxes overall for Texas households earning less than $100,000 and would bring tax relief for households above $100,000.

State Rep. Chris Turner, who chairs his House Democratic Caucus, told The Texas Tribune that there are more than 60 “hard no” votes from Democrats against the proposal. If that opposition sticks for Tuesday’s expected vote on House Joint Resolution 3, its chances of passing the lower chamber would seem unlikely.

Patrick said he hoped both chambers would be able to get the needed two-thirds approval for the joint resolution from each chamber, but indicated he was open to getting it passed in different ways, exclaiming, “If it doesn’t, we’ll make it happen anyway!”

Sure, Dan. If you want to know why some of us are so skeptical of this, while plutocrats like Dan Patrick love it, consider this.

The state-run Legislative Budget Board estimated that the top 40% of wealthiest Texas households would see enough property tax savings to offset their increased sales tax payments in fiscal 2021. The bottom 60% of Texas households would pay more in taxes overall.

Households that make less than $99,619 would pay a total of $171 million more in taxes under the tax swap. Households that make more than that would pay a total of $424 million less in taxes, according to the analysis.

The disparity is because poor Texans tend to spend a greater portion of their money on taxable items.

The bottom fifth of Texas household incomes — those with incomes less than $37,630 — spend about 7.3% of their income on state sales tax while households in the top fifth of incomes — those with incomes of $149,453 and more — spend 1.6% of their income on state sales tax, according to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts.

Of course, we’ve known this forever, but the same bad idea crops up every few years and gets beaten down by the club of the same evidence. So we go through the motions. You can catch up on reading about this at various locations – the DMN, the Chron, Better Texas Blog with a handy chart – but be sure to read the analyses of the politics of this by Ross Ramsey and Scott Braddock. The reason the Big Three are putting on such a show of bravado is because they’re holding an eight-high hand in a game of five card stud, and they know it. And as Braddock notes on Twitter, so do members of the Lege.

Which may be why in the end, we got this.

The Texas Senate on Monday approved a bill to massively overhaul public school finance, but did so while backing away from a proposal to use an increased sales tax to lower school district property taxes.

After an hours-long debate on dozens of proposed changes, the Senate voted 26-2 on House Bill 3, which under the version passed by the upper chamber would increase student funding, give teachers and librarians a $5,000 pay raise, fund full-day pre-K for low-income students, and lower tax bills.

The House and Senate will have to negotiate their significant differences over the bill — including how to offer teacher pay raises and property tax relief — in a conference committee before it can be signed into law.

“When you’re doing something as complex as this, there’s going to be something you don’t like,” said state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, the bill’s author, anticipating tension throughout the day’s debate.

[…]

Taylor stripped the [sales tax] increase from HB 3 and offloaded some of the more expensive property tax relief provisions in the bill. The bill no longer includes an expansion in the homestead exemption from school district taxes. It lowers property tax rates by 10 cents per $100 valuation, instead of 15 cents, saving the owner of a $250,000 home $250 instead of $375.

The legislation would still limit the growth in school districts’ revenue due to rising property values, a proposal pitched before session began by the governor. School districts that see their property values significantly increase would have their tax rates automatically reduced to keep tax revenue growth in line. That would now start next year, instead of in 2023.

“The bill before us today has no linkage to the sales tax and is not contingent upon a sales tax,” Taylor said.

Instead, the bill creates a separate “Tax Reduction and Excellence in Education Fund” to fund school district tax relief. State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said a working group came up with a plan to get $3 billion from several sources, including the severance tax on oil and gas extraction and an online sales tax.

“This does not increase any taxes of any kind,” he said.

So does this mean that the tax swap is dead? Well…

In for a penny, in for a million pounds, I guess. Have fun taking that vote, Republicans.

Who should be managing the Permanent School Fund?

It’s a good question, and I’m not sure what the best answer to it is.

Lawmakers are proposing a wide range of fixes for the state’s public school endowment, which has lost out on billions in growth during the past decade while paying out less to schoolchildren.

One bipartisan bill backed by high-powered legislators would restore the State Board of Education’s control over nearly all of the investments for the $44 billion Texas Permanent School Fund, reverting to the way it was before a 2001 law change.

Another would allow the School Land Board, which now controls about $10 billion of the endowment, to double the amount it can send annually directly to schools — up to $600 million. Yet another would take most of the money away from the feuding boards and create a new nine-member governing body appointed by the governor to decide how the endowment invests and distributes its dollars.

[…]

A key point in the debate is which governing body should have the authority to retain and invest the state’s oil and gas royalty revenue from leases on state land. Until 2001, the land board collected the money and sent it passively along to the education board to invest. But a law passed that year allowed the land board to retain the money and invest it.

A series of law changes and constitutional amendments since has changed the way money is sent to schools. The education board was tasked with setting a distribution rate based on a complex formula that, in part, depends on how much money it receives from the land board. Lawmakers also authorized the land board to send up to $300 million per year directly to schools, instead of to the education board, but it has no requirement to do so.

The changes created a serious governance issue, said Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat who has introduced a bill that would return the royalty revenue to the education board to invest. That bill has the backing of five Republican Senate committee chairs. Republican Rep. Ken King has filed identical legislation in the House.

It also is supported by the education board’s chairwoman, Donna Bahorich, who said it aims to “permanently and efficiently fix the decision-making structure that affects the performance, distributions and expenses. Consolidation of the two pieces of the Permanent School Fund into one decision-making structure would be for the benefit of putting more money to work for the school children.”

See here and here for some background, and here for the Chron’s “Broken Trust” series, which uncovered a lot of these problems. The Land Board has had the worse performance, but the SBOE’s management isn’t perfect, and it was just ten years ago that there were proposals to take PSF management away from the SBOE. At some level, I don’t care who manages the PSF. What I do care about is ensuring accountability and maximizing returns. What are the best practices – what do other institutions that manage similar endowments do, for example – and what are the gaps that need to be addressed? That’s what I want us to focus on.

No more PSF investing for you, Land Board

Seems worth considering.

Austin Lawmakers filed bills this week that would strip the School Land Board of its ability to invest billions of dollars on behalf of Texas schoolchildren.

The bipartisan legislation, submitted Wednesday, comes amid mounting scrutiny over the management of the $44 billion Permanent School Fund, which is run jointly by the land board and the State Board of Education. The two boards are the subject of a yearlong Houston Chronicle investigation that began publishing Sunday, which found that the fund has lost out on as much as $12 billion in revenue, fueled by anemic returns, skyrocketing fees and questionable investment deals.

At the same time, students in Texas have received less annually from the endowment over the past decade, in real dollars, than they did in the two decades prior, even as the overall size of the fund has swelled.

The land board’s role has been especially contentious. It manages its portion of the portfolio — now at $10 billion — by collecting the state’s oil and gas royalty revenues and investing them, primarily in private equity. The land board has only three members, often meets behind closed doors, and since 2006 has committed or invested nearly $3.7 billion with companies run by friends, business associates or campaign donors.

The bills would end that, revoking the land board’s investment power and returning it entirely to the education board. It would still gather fees from royalties, but pass them straight on to the education board.

Consolidating the two will “put more money to work for the benefit of our schoolchildren,” Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat who is leading the effort, said in a statement. “The legislature created this flawed structure, and it’s time we fixed it.”

Five Republican Senate committee chairs have signed on to the legislation, including Jane Nelson, Brian Birdwell, Paul Bettencourt, Dawn Buckingham and Bob Hall. Republican Rep. Ken King has filed identical legislation in the House.

See here for the background, and here for the full series published by the Chron. The SBOE had full responsibility for the PSF until 2001, so this would revert things to the earlier setup. Not that the SBOE has been a perfect steward of the PSF, but they’ve been a little better than the Land Board. I would not object to an overall higher level of scrutiny on the whole process. This is at least a step in the right direction.

In a statement, Land Commissioner George P. Bush called the proposal a “power grab.” He said he welcomes reforms, but only if they’re based upon sound financial expertise.

“Without expert evaluation, the school children of Texas stand to lose,” he said.

Bush, who oversees the land board, said after a meeting on Tuesday that he had not read the Chronicle’s reporting and didn’t plan to.

“I’m trying a new strategy in 2019 by not reading my media,” he said. He said his office would review the series’ findings and follow up later.

Remember when George P. Bush was the fresh new exciting face of the Texas GOP? Boy, those were the days.

Bills to restore Open Meetings Act filed

This is good to see.

Sen. Kirk Watson

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

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

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

[…]

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

Rep. Dade Phelan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Whitley hearing

Not a great day at the office for our Secretary of State and his advisory-ing ways.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Almost two weeks after calling into question the citizenship status of almost 100,000 registered voters, Texas’ new chief elections officer, David Whitley, defended his office’s decision to hand over those voters’ names to law enforcement around the same time his office was also acknowledging to local election officials that the list of names could contain mistakes.

At a Senate hearing to consider his confirmation as secretary of state, Whitley vacillated between telling lawmakers he referred the list of voters to the attorney general’s office because his office had no power to investigate them for illegal voting and describing the citizenship review efforts as an ongoing process based on a list that still needed to be reviewed by local officials. But he made clear is that his office knew from the start that the data could be faulty.

He stated that in response to a question from state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, a Brenham Republican, who asked whether the secretary of state’s office had “cautioned the counties that there may be mistakes on the data.”

“Yes,” Whitley responded.

But when he was pressed by Democrats over his decision to send the list to the statewide office that handles criminal voter fraud prosecutions before the list was fully vetted, Whitley responded he wanted to get the data “in the hands of someone who could do something with it,” given that the secretary of state’s office had no power to investigate. That prompted follow-up questions about whether he should have waited until the list was scrubbed by local election officials, and Whitley doubled down with his defense, despite describing the data as “preliminary.”

“I can tell you senator that 100 percent my reason for transmitting this data to the attorney general’s office was to ensure that these lists were as accurate as possible,” Whitley said to state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin.

Sitting before senators in a packed committee room, Whitley faced blistering questions from Democrats for the better part of two hours. After brief opening remarks in which he touted his long career as a public servant, he somberly defended the controversial citizenship review efforts he ordered. But at times he struggled to answer technical questions about the flawed data at the heart of it.

At one point, Watson asked Whitley whether he’d consider asking the attorney general to hold off on investigating voters until the list was cleaned up. Whitley responded it was a “reasonable request” but said he was unsure “that it’s appropriate coming from my office.”

“You were the one who made the referral and blasted it all over the state,” Watson said.

See here for the background. It goes from there, and it never gets any better for Whitley, who mostly comes across as unprepared. As discussed, he will need a two-thirds vote of the Senate to be confirmed, and right now he doesn’t look to be on track to win over any Democrats, from whom he will need at least one vote to clear the bar. As I understand it, if he does not get confirmed, he will serve till the end of the legislative session, then Abbott will have to name someone else. The last time I can recall such an appointment getting scuttled was in 2011, when we had the fortunately-doomed nomination of David Bradley to the Forensic Sciences Commission. Before that was the 2009 nomination of Don McLeroy as Chair of the SBOE. I don’t care who you are in Texas politics, those are not names you want to be associated with.

Anyway. It’s still early to say what will happen for sure, but David Whitley didn’t win anyone over yesterday. See Progress Texas’ Twitter feed for in-the-moment coverage, and the Chron editorial board, which calls for Whitley to be rejected, has more.

Initial thoughts: The Lege

Live by the gerrymander, die by the gerrymander.

At the end of the 2011 legislative session, state Rep. Rafael Anchia, a Dallas Democrat, sat down to dinner with a Republican colleague from the Texas House. Anchia was exhausted and incensed.

It had been a brutal six months for House Democrats, who were down to 48 seats in the 150-seat chamber. After riding a red wave in the 2010 election, Republicans used their new House supermajority to redraw Texas’ political maps following the once-a-decade census in a way that would help them hold onto their gains. They all but assured GOP control of the House for the next decade and secured almost 60 percent of the seats in Dallas County, even though the county was already reliably blue.

Anchia recalled telling the Republican colleague, who he declined to name, that Dallas Democrats were “getting screwed.” But the colleague offered a puzzling piece of solace: “There’s not going to be one [Dallas] Republican left by the end of this decade.”

Seven years later, that political forecast almost became reality. Amid their zeal for control, Republicans in 2011 opted for keeping their numbers up in the county and dismissed the possibility of creating a district with a black and Hispanic majority that could’ve made their seats safer in a Democratic wave election. Going into Election Day, Republicans held seven of the 14 House seats in Dallas County. But a collapse of the Republican-leaning redistricting scheme has left them with just two seats — and even those were won by narrow margins.

“The lesson is you can get too clever in gerrymandering,” said Michael Li, a redistricting expert with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

[…]

As far as Democrats and redistricting experts are concerned, Republicans could have opted to create a new “opportunity district” for the county’s growing population of color. That would’ve reduced the number of voters of color in Republican districts, giving the GOP more of a cushion through the decade, but it would have also likely added another seat to the Democrats’ column.

Opting instead for more power, the Democrats alleged, the Republicans packed and cracked Latino voters across the county to diminish their voting strength overall and ensure a GOP majority.

But Republicans “shaved those things off a little too close because they got greedy,” said Jose Garza, a voting rights lawyer who helped challenge the GOP’s mapmaking. And in a wave election like this, the vulnerable Republican majority loses its edge, he added.

Here’s my precinct analysis from 2016 for Dallas County. I had some thoughts about how this year might go based on what happened in 2016, so let me quote myself from that second post:

“So the best case for the Republicans is a clear win in six districts, with two tossups. Democrats can reasonably hope to have an advantage in eight districts, and in a really good year could mount a decent challenge in 11. These are Presidential year conditions, of course, though as we’ve discussed several times, there’s every reason to believe that 2018 will not be like 2010 or 2014. It still could be bad – Dems will definitely have to protect HD107 – but if the off-year cycle has been broken, there are a lot of opportunities in Dallas to make gains.”

In actuality, Dems won twelve of fourteen races, with a recount possible in one of the two losses. Clearly, I did not see that coming. The supercharged performance in Dallas County overall contributed not only to these results, but also the wins in SD16 and CD32. If this is the new normal in Dallas County, Republicans are going to have some very hard choices to make in 2021 when it’s time to redraw the lines.

And by the way, this lesson about not being too greedy is one they should have learned in the last decade. In 2001, they drew the six legislative districts in Travis County to be three Ds and three Rs. By 2008, all six districts were in Democratic hands. The Republicans won HD47 back in the 2010 wave, and the map they drew this time around left it at 5-1 for the Dems. Of course, they lost HD47 last week too, so maybe the lesson is that the big urban areas are just unrelentingly hostile to them. Not a very useful lesson, I suppose, but not my problem.

Anyway. Here were the top legislative targets for 2018 that I identified last cycle. Let’s do an update on that:


Dist  Clinton% Burns%  Dem18%  Rep18%
=====================================
105     52.1%   49.0%   54.7%   45.3%
113     49.1%   46.4%   53.5%   46.5%
115     51.5%   45.8%   56.7%   43.3%
134     54.7%   45.4%   46.8%   53.2%
102     52.3%   45.3%   52.8%   47.2%
043     43.6%   44.3%   38.9%   61.1%
112     48.3%   43.9%   48.9%   51.1%
135     46.6%   43.7%   50.8%   47.7%
138     47.6%   43.6%   49.9%   50.1%
114     52.1%   43.3%   55.6%   44.4%
132     45.5%   42.7%   49.2%   49.1%
136     46.7%   42.7%   53.3%   43.8%
065     46.1%   42.4%   51.1%   48.9%
052     45.3%   42.2%   51.7%   48.3%
054     43.6%   42.0%   46.2%   53.8%
045     44.2%   41.7%   51.6%   48.4%
026     45.5%   41.0%   47.5%   52.5%
047     46.5%   40.5%   52.3%   47.7%
126     42.7%   39.8%   45.2%   54.8%
108     50.3%   39.6%   49.7%   50.3%
066     45.5%   39.5%   49.7%   50.3%
067     43.9%   38.9%   48.9%   51.1%
097     42.1%   38.5%   47.2%   50.9%
121     42.7%   38.0%   44.7%   53.2%

“Clinton%” is the share of the vote Hillary Clinton got in the district in 2016, while “Burns%” is the same for Court of Criminal Appeals candidate Robert Burns. I used the latter as my proxy for the partisan ratio in a district, as Clinton had picked up crossover votes and thus in my mind made things look better for Dems than perhaps they really were. As you can see from the “Dem18% and “Rep18%” values, which are the percentages the State Rep candidates got this year, I was overly pessimistic. I figured the potential was there for growth, and hoped that people who avoided Trump could be persuaded, but I did not expect this much success. Obviously Beto was a factor as well, but it’s not like Republicans didn’t vote. They just had nowhere near the cushion they were accustomed to having, and it showed in the results.

All 12 pickups came from this group, and there remain a few key opportunities for 2020, starting with HDs 138, 54, 26, 66, and 67. I’d remove HD43, which is moving in the wrong direction, and HD134 continues to be in a class by itself, but there are other places to look. What’s more, we can consider a few districts that weren’t on the radar this year to be in play for 2020:


Dist  Clinton% Burns%  Dem18%  Rep18%
=====================================
014     38.1%   34.7%   43.6%   56.4%
023     40.7%   40.5%   41.1%   56.8%
028     42.7%   38.9%   45.8%   54.2%
029     41.0%   38.9%   
032     41.9%   39.5%
064     39.5%   37.4%   44.5%   52.8%
070     32.2%   28.8%   38.2%   61.8%
084     34.8%   32.1%   39.8%   60.2%
085     40.9%   39.7%   43.5%   46.5%
089     35.4%   32.1%   40.4%   59.6%
092     40.2%   37.9%   47.4%   49.8%
093     40.0%   37.5%   46.1%   53.9%
094     40.5%   37.7%   43.9%   52.5%
096     42.3%   40.6%   47.2%   50.9%
129     39.8%   36.3%   41.8%   56.5%
150     36.3%   33.5%   42.2%   57.8%

Dems did not field a candidate in HD32 (Nueces County), and while we had a candidate run and win in the primary in HD29 (Brazoria County), he must have withdrawn because there’s no Dem listed on the SOS results page. Obviously, some of these are reaches, but given how much some of the districts above shifted in a Dem direction, I’d want to see it be a priority to get good candidates in all of them, and find the funds to help them run robust campaigns.

Two other points to note. One is that the number of LGBTQ members of the House went from two (Reps. Mary Gonzalez and Celia Israel) to five in this election, as Reps-elect Erin Zwiener, Jessica Gonzalez, and Julie Johnson join them. We just missed adding one to the Senate as Mark Phariss lost by two points to Angela Paxton. Other LGBTQ candidates won other races around the state, and that list at the bottom of the article omits at least one I know of, my friend and former blogging colleague KT Musselman in Williamson County.

And on a related note, the number of Anglo Democrats, a subject that gets discussed from time to time, has more than tripled, going from six to seventeen. We began with Sens. Kirk Watson and John Whitmire, and Reps. Donna Howard, Joe Pickett, Tracy King, and Chris Turner, and to them we add Sens-elect Beverly Powell and Nathan Johnson, and Reps-elect Erin Zwiener, Vikki Goodwin, James Talarico, Michelle Beckley, John Turner, Julie Johnson, Gina Calanni, Jon Rosenthal, and John Bucy. You can make of that what you want, I’m just noting it for the record.

UPDATE: As noted in the comments, added Rep. Tracy King to the list of Anglo Dems.

Scenes from the March For Our Lives

From Houston:

Nearly 15,000 descended Saturday morning on downtown Houston for the city’s March For Our Lives, advocating for greater gun control in light of last month’s Florida school shooting.

A mix of children and adults gathered in Houston’s Tranquility Park for the student-led march, many carrying signs that illustrated their fear of violence and demand for legislative action.

“I didn’t know what to expect here today, but I just expect change in the government,” said Austin Luchak, a ninth-grader at The Woodlands College Park High School who attended the march with his father. “I hope they follow through.”

Hundreds of marches are taking place across the country, largely driven by students who are organizing the events. The rally in Washington included Texans like Kay Hopper, a retiree from Austin who showed up with her daughter, son-in-law and grandchild. “I’m hoping that what starts here will change the world in Texas,” Hopper said.

[…]

In Houston, organizers expected 10,000 to 20,000 attendees to gather in Tranquility Park and march toward U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s office.

“Today, I hope our voices are heard, because we are the ones that go to school,” said Azariah Haro, a junior from Langham Creek High School in Cy-Fair ISD, who traveled to Saturday’s event with three friends. “I really hope we’re able to make a change.”

As protesters milled about shortly before the 9 a.m. start, volunteers worked to register young voters inspired into political action. Many brought signs voicing opposition to the National Rifle Association, while others implored replacing legislators who have been more supportive of expanded gun rights.

Emphasis mine. I’ll get back to that in a minute. Mayor Turner spoke at the rally, and he announced the creation of the Mayor’s Commission to End Gun Violence. Details will be forthcoming. In the meantime, there were rallies around the state as well.

In more than 800 planned “March for Our Lives” events across the country – including in Austin, Houston and Dallas – students and families protested against gun violence and called on lawmakers to take decisive action.

Thousands clogged Austin’s Congress Ave and gathered outside the pink-domed Capitol building, chanting and applauding as speakers – including Mayor Steve Adler, actor Matthew McConaughey and the local high school students organizers of the event – took their turns rallying the crowd.

“We cannot allow one more child to be shot at school. We cannot allow one more teacher to make the choice to jump in front of an assault rifle,” said state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin. “Not one more.” The crowd broke into chants of “Not one more!” as he spoke.

Many of the speakers at the Austin event pointedly described state lawmakers’ dithering on gun-control laws, and called for reforms – like a ban on assault-style weapons and bolstering the background-check process.

“Now there is not one solution that will prevent mass shootings,” Adler, the mayor, said at one point, “but there are common sense solutions most people can agree upon.” He suggested people on airlines’ “no-fly” lists should be banned from purchasing guns, and said, “if you can’t buy a gun in a gun store, you shouldn’t be able to buy a gun at a gun show.”

Watson dismissed a push to arm school staff and educators with weapons by saying teachers in the state are already-overburdened. “Adding sharpshooter to their list of obligations is ridiculous,” he said.

There were many more marches around the country and around the world as well. These are great to see, but what comes next is of greater importance. There is – correctly – a lot of focus on Congress, as there is a lot that can and should be done at the federal level to reform gun laws. Part of the reason for that is because Democrats have a decent chance of retaking the House, and even if they can’t get the Senate this year, it along with the Presidency are very doable in 2020.

It’s a much bigger challenge at the state level – the Lege isn’t flipping, and statewide offices are very much longshots. But we can make gains, and we can state our goals for state government, which if nothing else can serve as both vision and rallying cry. Right now, though, I don’t know what those goals are – I’m not even sure I could say what they should be. We’re pretty clear on things like education, health care, equality, the environment, and criminal justice, but gun issues have not been in the foreground except for when we have had to play defense. Someone asked me recently if I could point them to a legislative scorecard for gun control, and the only one either of us could find was from the NRA. There are local chapters here of national groups like Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action, but again that focus has been on the national scene. We know that if we want to change things in Texas we need to win more elections, but we need the candidates we are electing to have gun safety as one of their mandates. What is it we hope to accomplish on this issue in the Legislature in 2019? That needs to be our starting point.

Hog apocalypse update

The poison plan for controlling feral hogs is set to be put on pause by the Legislature.

A bill poised to pass the Texas House would amend the Texas Agriculture Code to prohibit the Department of Agriculture from registering, approving for use or allowing use of any pesticide for feral hog control unless a study by a state agency or university recommends such action.

That legislation – HB 3451, by Rep. Lynn Stucky, R-Denton – was filed in the wake of the Texas Department of Agriculture’s emergency rules issued earlier this year (and since suspended by a state judge) that set regulations for use of the first pesticide approved by the federal Environmental Protection Agency for use controlling feral hogs. Texas holds more than 2 million feral hogs, an invasive species causing significant environmental and economic damage in the state. While extermination of feral hogs is almost universally approved by Texans, the move allowing use of the pesticide proved controversial, drawing intense opposition from a wide range of individuals and organizations concerned about the potential negative effects on humans and non-target animals from warfarin, the pesticide’s active ingredient.

Stucky’s bill, which has more than 120 House members as co-sponsors, sailed through its committee hearing, initial procedural readings on the House floor and could see final passage by the House as soon as this week.

The bill can expect to be well received in the Texas Senate, where a companion bill – SB 1454 by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin – has almost a third of the Senate as co-sponsors.

See here and here for the background. That column was published on Wednesday. HB3451 was postponed, first till Thursday and then till Monday, at which time it was overwhelmingly approved by the full House.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller’s push to use a warfarin-based poison to kill feral hogs in the state has a long list of opponents that now includes more than two-thirds of the Legislature where Miller once served.

House lawmakers voted 128 to 13 to preliminarily approve legislation Monday that would require state agency or university research before the use of lethal pesticides on wild pigs. A companion bill in the Senate has 10 co-sponsors.

[…]

A coalition of hunters, animal rights advocates, conservationists and meat processors has mobilized against the use of the poison. The Texas State Rifle Association, Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation, the Texas Hog Hunters Association and the Texas Veterinary Medical Association are all among the groups that support the bill.

Lotta love for ol’ Sid there. SB1454 has not had a committee hearing yet. Sure seems likely this will pass, especially given that House vote, but it’s never over till it’s over in the Lege. There’s more about other outdoors-related bills in that column, so check it out if that’s your thing.

Let’s have a study of that hog apocalypse first

Maybe we should figure out what the effects of poisoning feral hogs might be before we start poisoning them.

Two bills from Texas lawmakers — state Rep. Lynn Stucky, R-Denton, and state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin — would require state agency or university research before the use of lethal pesticides on wild pigs.

The legislation comes after outcry from Texas hog hunters and meat processors over state approval of a new feral hog poison called Kaput, which they say would hurt their businesses and contaminate other game animals and livestock. A state judge issued a temporary restraining order against the rule on March 2. Wild Boar Meat, the Hubbard-based company that sued to stop use of the poison, processes hog meat to sell to pet food companies.

Kaput contains a chemical called Warfarin, which at varying concentrations is used as a rat poison and a blood thinner in humans. It causes hogs that consume it to die of internal bleeding, a process that takes four to seven days.

House Bill 3451 and Senate Bill 1454, both filed this week, would require scientific studies of the poison to include controlled field trials and assess the economic consequences to the state’s property owners, hunters, and agriculture industry.

[…]

When Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller announced a state rule change in February that allowed the use of Kaput — which the Environmental Protection Agency approved for feral hog control earlier this year — he called the poison a “long overdue” solution to the extensive damage the wild pigs cause every year.

“The ‘Hog Apocalypse’ may finally be on the horizon,” said Miller, who as a state legislator passed a measure known as the “pork-chopper bill” that allowed the hunting of hogs by helicopter in 2011.

The department has defended the new rule, saying it imposes licensing restrictions to protect against misuse of the poison.

See here for the background. On the one hand, it’s long been clear that hunting the hogs, even with no restrictions or bag limits and even from helicopters, will never be enough to slow down the population growth. Warfarin is approved by the EPA, and it just might work. On the other hand, it’s hard to take seriously any claim by Sid Miller that’s he’s being a careful and conscientious steward of the environment. On balance, I’d say it’s better to be a bit more deliberate with this.

Turns out a little budget flexibility is a good thing

Some lessons have to be learned the hard way.

More than a year after Texas voters approved routing billions in state sales taxes to roads and bridges, some lawmakers are questioning whether the first payment of $5 billion should move forward as planned.

Texans voted in 2015 to boost funding for state’s public roadways and bridges, which have strained under the state’s growing population. Proposition 7 — loudly cheered by top Texas leaders and supported by 83 percent of voters — changed the constitution to route some taxes collected on car sales to the State Highway Fund.

But in an unusually tightfisted legislative session, some Texas lawmakers are raising the prospect of reducing that initial cash infusion to the State Highway Fund scheduled for this year to free up money for other state programs.

No one has publicly backed such a move, but key budget writers have privately discussed the option. And at a Senate Finance Committee hearing Monday, Sens. Kirk Watson of Austin and Charles Schwertner of Georgetown asked Legislative Budget Board staffers about how it might work.

It turns out that the enabling legislation for that referendum included an escape hatch, in which a two-thirds vote can be used to divert some of that $5 billion for other purposes. That probably won’t happen, though I presume it’s no less likely than a vote to tap the Rainy Day Fund to get through this session and hope that things will be better in 2019. We can certainly debate whether it should happen or not, but my reason for highlighting this is that it’s yet another example of why artificial budget constraints are so often a bad idea, whose main effect is to force budget writers to come up with creative ways around said constraints. I say it’s more honest to just let them have the flexibility to figure it out rather than be forced into certain choices, but that’s not how we do things.

More Congressional seats are likely on the way

If current trends continue, that is.

Texas could pick up two, perhaps three, new congressional seats following the 2020 decennial Census if current population growth continues through the decade, political and demographic experts said Thursday.

With continued growth in Texas’ four major metropolitan areas, they said, the state could almost match the gains it made in political representation after the 2010 Census, when it added four seats in Congress.

The Houston metropolitan area has led the way this decade, according to Census Bureau data released Thursday, potentially positioning the area for two additional seats in fast-growing Fort Bend and Montgomery counties.

The San Antonio area likely would be at the top of the list for an additional congressional seat, as well, said state demographer and University of Texas at San Antonio professor Lloyd Potter.

All told, the state’s largest metro areas – anchored in Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio – added about 400,000 people last year, more than any other state in the country.

[…]

The greater Houston area, which includes The Woodlands and Sugar Land, added about 159,000 residents between July 2014 and July 2015, while the second-fastest-growing Texas metro area, Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, saw an increase of 145,000.

The state’s population growth was led by Latinos in the last decade, Potter said, a trend that has accelerated.

“I can see areas that, maybe historically, were largely non-Hispanic white shifting and becoming more integrated in terms of having people of Hispanic descent, Asian and even African-American in them,” Potter said.

Under those circumstances, it could become increasingly difficult for Republicans, who will control the state legislature for the foreseeable future, to draw the new congressional and state district lines in ways that favor their party.

In the short term, given the party’s firm grip on power in Texas, growth in the state will favor the GOP, but that political calculus cannot last in the long-term, according to Bob Stein, a political science professor at Rice University.

“There simply aren’t enough bodies to go around to draw what we might call safe Republican districts,” Stein said. “Nonetheless, I think Republicans will find a way to advantage themselves, particularly in the statehouse. But increasingly, what you’re going to find is a black and Hispanic population become an obstacle to drawing districts.”

Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves here. As I said before, let’s wait and see what the next estimates have to say, because things could slow down considerably before the actual Census takes place if the oil and gas industry is still in a slump. There’s also the matter of that pesky never-ending litigation spawned by the 2011 redistricting (technically, we’re fighting over the 2013 maps), which if nothing else may offer some direction on how the GOP might proceed in 2021. With all that said, here are a few thoughts:

– If trends continue and Texas does get three new Congressional seats, I fully expect two of them to be drawn as Republican districts. Never mind that it was almost entirely growth in the minority population drove the increase – that didn’t matter to the Republican map-drawers in 2011, and it won’t matter to them in 2021 unless they are forced to take it into consideration by the courts. Even then, the only scenario under which I see more than one Democratic district being drawn is if the Republicans conclude that they can’t draw any more GOP districts without putting their incumbents at risk.

(I will stipulate here that the Democrats thought this way when they were in charge, too, and that we’d be having a different conversation now if we had some kind of independent redistricting commission in place. That ain’t gonna happen, and I will further stipulate that it won’t happen if by some miracle the Dems seize control of the Lege in 2021. Let’s keep our eye on the ball that is actually in play.)

– I fully expect the Republicans to try once again to draw Lloyd Doggett out of a district. They tried in 2003, they tried in 2011, why wouldn’t they try in 2021? Death, taxes, and Lloyd Doggett has a target on his back in redistricting.

– You can also be sure that they will try to make CD23 as Republican-friendly as possible. That district is one of the few that is still under dispute in the ongoing litigation, and if there’s one lesson to be taken from the 2011 experience it’s that whatever egregious thing you do in drawing the maps, you’re going to get at least two cycles of benefit from it before any corrections are made, so why not go for broke? That will be the case in 2021, and assuming President Trump doesn’t dissolve Congress in his second term, I’d bet it’s a point of contention in 2031, too.

– Moving on to other entities, I wonder if the Republicans will try to do to Kirk Watson in the Senate what they’ve tried to do to Doggett in Congress. It amazes me that Travis County has pieces of so many Congressional districts in it – I joked back in 2011 that if the GOP could have figured out a way to put a piece of all 36 Congressional districts in Travis County they would have – all but one of which is held by a Republican, yet the large majority of SD14 is in Travis County, and the large majority of Travis County is represented by good old liberal Watson. Maybe it’s harder to stick a shiv in a colleague than some chump in Washington, I don’t know. But if SD14 survives more or less intact in 2021, I will begin to wonder just what Sen. Watson has on his fellow Senators.

– I also wonder if SD19, which has a lot of overlap with CD23, might get tinkered with in a way that would make it more of a district that could be won by either party based on whether or not it’s a Presidential year. SD19 isn’t that heavily Democratic, though Sen. Uresti survived 2010 intact and is on a Presidential cycle this decade. There’s less pressing a need for this from a GOP perspective since the two thirds rule was killed, and there’s still that pesky litigation and the queasiness they may feel about knifing a colleague, but hey, a seat’s a seat.

– The GOP will likely try to make SD10 a little redder, and if they think about it, they might take a look at SD16, too. That district can be pretty purple in Presidential years (it’s on a non-Presidential cycle this time around), and with a less-congenial member in place now than John Carona was, it could be a tempting target. Major surgery isn’t required to shore it up, just a little nip and tuck. Just a thought.

– As for the State House, the two main questions for me are whether Harris County will get 25 members again, and if Dallas County, which lost two seats in 2011, will get one or more back. We won’t know the answer to these questions until the Redistricting Committee gets down to brass tacks in 2021.

– The ongoing litigation is as much about the State House as it is Congress, though in both cases the number of districts currently in dispute is small. As with the Congressional districts, I fully expect that the same fights will occur over the same places, which includes the places where the court ruled against the plaintiffs initially. Some of those places – western Harris County (HD132), Fort Bend (HD26), the Killeen/Fort Hood area (HD54) – could support districts that are tossup/lean Dem right now if one were inclined to draw such things. I suspect that battleground will be bigger in 2021.

– Since the debacle of 2010, much has been written about the decline of Anglo Democrats in the Lege. That number has dipped again, thanks to the retirement of Rep. Elliott Naishtat and subsequent primary win by Gina Hinojosa. What could at least temporarily reverse that trend is for Dems to finally win a couple of the swingy Dallas County seats that are currently held by Republicans, specifically (in order of difficulty) HDs 114, 115, and 102. (HDs 105 and 107 are far closer electorally, but checking the candidateswebsites, the Dems in question are both Latinas.) Longer term, if the Dems can make themselves more competitive in suburban areas, that number will increase. This is a corollary of Mary Beth Roger’s prescription for Texas Dems, and it’s something that needs more emphasis. Texas Dems ain’t going anywhere till we can be a credible electoral threat in suburban counties. Our pre-2010 caucus was bolstered by the presence of legacy rural incumbents. We’re not winning those seats back any time soon. The good news is that we don’t need to. The opportunities are elsewhere. The bad news is that we haven’t figured our how to take advantage of it, and it’s not clear that we’re putting that much effort into figuring it out.

Complaint filed against Sid Miller

Game on.

Sid Miller

A liberal advocacy group on Monday asked the Texas Rangers to investigate whether Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller used taxpayer money to fly to Oklahoma to get an injection known as “the Jesus Shot” that is supposed to cure all pain for life.

The group, Progress Texas, filed a two-page complaint alleging Miller intentionally abused his office in February of 2015 by using at least $1,120 in public money for private gain.

Abuse of office involving using that amount of money for private gain is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine.

“Politicians like Sid Miller using their office to benefit themselves is inexcusable,” said Lucy Stein, advocacy director for the group. “These guys think that they’re above the law, and they aren’t.”

The complaint stems from a Houston Chronicle article published last week that raised questions about the February 2015 trip, which Miller took to Oklahoma City with a top aide, billing the taxpayers at least $1,120.

[…]

Monday’s action marks the first criminal complaint against Miller.

It also is among the first complaint of its kind to be filed with the Texas Rangers, which was given authority during last year’s legislative session to probe allegations of misconduct by state elected officials and employees. The move took that power away from the Public Integrity Unit in the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, which was accused by Republicans of initiating cases for political reasons.

Stein said she had trouble figuring out who to contact with her complaint and was referred to multiple employees within the Texas Department of Public Safety.

“It’s very complicated now — nobody knows what they’re doing,” said Stein, who worried that the process could scare off some Texans with fewer resources. “It shouldn’t be so hard for an ordinary citizen to file a complaint against a statewide elected official.”

Stein said she had been told that the Rangers were “reviewing” the complaint.

See here for the background. This will be an interesting test of that new procedure, as defined by the Lege last year. Among other things, if the Rangers decide there’s enough evidence to hand off to a prosecutor, that would presumably mean giving it to the District Attorney of Erath County, where Miller attends church and hung his hat as State Rep in HD59. Here’s Sen. Kirk Watson, in the comments to an RG Ratcliife post on Facebook, explaining the details:

Of course the answer is a little complicated because of the way the bill (HB 1690) was drafted.

HB 1690 says “venue … IS the county in which the defendant resided at the time the offense was committed.” However, then the bill defines residence for 4 categories of people: legislators, members of the executive branch, certain judges, and everyone else. For members of the executive branch, residence is defined as the county where the person “claimed to be a resident before being subject to residency requirements under Article IV, Texas Constitution.” (That’s the former requirement that certain executive offices must reside in Travis county.) The Ag. Commissioner used to be subject to the residency requirement since he’s elected statewide (see SJR 52).

So, piecing it all together, I think he can only be prosecuted where he claimed to be a resident before he was elected Ag. Commissioner. The bill doesn’t provide any guidance re: what constitutes claiming to be a resident.

This is the PIU bill not any “ethics” bill that was vetoed. Remember a key problem with what was being done was that they were creating a special class of defendants. Instead of trying a person (ever other person) in the place where the crime is committed, they create a special class of people that can and will be tried in some place other than where the crime is committed. The place they claim residency.

Got all that? This presumes, of course, that the Erath County DA would not be conflicted up the wazoo and have to recuse himself a la the Collin County DA and Ken Paxton. In which case we’d have yet another special prosecutor prosecuting yet another elected Republican. Isn’t this fun? I’m getting ahead of myself here – we don’t even know what the Rangers are going to do with this just yet – but keep that in your back pocket for future contemplation.

One more thing: Ross Ramsay wrote that for now, the lack of two-party competitiveness in Texas means that all this is water of Sid Miller’s back, at least until a grand jury returns an indictment and/or he draws a primary challenger. I’ve seen more than one lament, on Facebook and elsewhere, about how pathetic the Democrats must be for us to be in this situation. Well, the simple fact is that there are more Rs than Ds in Texas right now. There are things that may change that, in the long term and the short term, one of which I have noted is for more than a few Rs to become fed up with their party, or at least a few specific members of it, and refuse to support them any more. Dirty elected officials, and the colleagues who apparently have not problem with them, are a possible reason why they may do this. Perhaps that effect will be noticeable in 2018, and perhaps it will not. For now, it’s all a matter of numbers. As with most things in politics, things are they way they are until all of a sudden they’re not. Trail Blazers has more.

Immigration bills fail

Another thing to celebrate from this session.

As the sun begins to set on the 84th Texas Legislature, promises to enact tough immigration legislation remain unfulfilled. State Sen. Donna Campbell says she’s not giving up just because the last gavel is about to drop.

Campbell, a New Braunfels Republican, tried unsuccessfully to pass Senate Bill 1819, which would have eliminated a 14-year-old policy that allows non-citizens, including some undocumented immigrants, to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities.

“Unfortunately, it takes a [three-fifths] vote to bring a bill to the floor, and I was unable to find those final two to three affirmative votes once the bill passed out of committee,” she said in an email Saturday. “I am disappointed that we were unable to get this bill passed under the current body, but I have two years to change a couple members’ minds and try again next session.”

Republican lawmakers could take a similar conciliatory tone on another contentious issue, Senate Bill 185, by state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock. That bill sought to ban so-called “sanctuary cities” – the common term for local governments whose peace officers don’t enforce immigration laws.

The proposals seemed likely to pass, at minimum, the upper chamber in the early months of the session. The crush of unauthorized migration last summer in the Rio Grande Valley kept the issues at the forefront, and some GOP senators said during their campaigns that passing immigration legislation was a priority.

But two Republican senators, Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, and Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, opposed the measures. Eltife said the issues were about local control; Estes said he feared both could have dire unintended consequences. Their opposition blocked both from going before the full chamber for a vote.

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said a coalition opposing the bills formed early, and it held “regardless of a great deal of pressure that was put on some people.”

“We spent time talking to individual members and talking to people outside the Capitol who in turn talked to members, so that we could be sure we weren’t making any assumptions about where someone might be on these bills, simply because of their party,” said Watson, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus.

See here for some background. I don’t expect this issue to go away despite the huge amount allocate in the budget for “border security” or the reality that immigration patterns have changed greatly in recent years. This will be a “crisis” in need of “immediate action” for as long as it has potency as an election issue. Stace has more.

There’s still time for bad bills to be passed

Bad bill #1:

Never again

Never again

After four hours of debate and more than a dozen failed amendments offered by Democrats, the Senate on Monday gave preliminary approval to far-reaching restrictions on minors seeking abortions in Texas without parental consent.

On a 21-10 vote, the upper chamber signed off on House Bill 3994 by Republican state Rep. Geanie Morrison of Victoria to tighten the requirements on “judicial bypass,” the legal process that allows minors to get court approval for an abortion if seeking permission from their parents could endanger them.

The vote was along party lines with one Democrat, Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. of Brownsville, joining Republicans to pass the measure.

[…]

After it reached the Senate, [Sen. Charles] Perry did some rewriting on HB 3994 to address two of the bill’s most controversial provisions on which both Democrats and some conservatives had raised concerns.

As expected, he gutted a provision that would have required all doctors to presume a pregnant woman seeking an abortion was a minor unless she could present a “valid government record of identification” to prove she was 18 or older.

The ID requirement — dubbed “abortion ID” by opponents — raised red flags because it would apply to all women in the state even though the bill focused on minors.

Under Perry’s new language, a physician must use “due diligence” to determine a woman’s identity and age, but could still perform the abortion if a woman could not provide an ID. Doctors would also have to report to the state how many abortions were performed annually without “proof of identity and age.”

Perry said the revised language “gives physician more latitude” to determine a woman’s age.

But Democratic state Sen. Kirk Watson of Austin, who spoke in opposition to the bill and questioned Perry for almost an hour, questioned the ID requirement altogether.

“I can’t think of another instance where we presume women are children,” Watson said. “I certainly can’t think of any situation where we presume a man is a child.”

Perry also changed course on a provision that would have reversed current law such that if a judge does not rule on the bypass request within five days, the request is considered denied. Under current law, the bypass is presumed approved if a judge does not rule.

Perry cut that denial provision from the bill, saying it is now “silent” on the issue. But that did little to appease opponents who pointed out a judge’s failure to rule effectively denies the minor an abortion.

“In essence, the judge can bypass the judicial bypass by simply not ruling,” Watson said, adding that the appeals process is derailed without a denial by a judge.

HB 3994 also extends the time in which judges can rule on a judicial bypass case from two business days to five. Perry said this was meant to give judges more time and “clarity” to consider these cases.

But Democratic state Sen. Sylvia Garcia of Houston, who also offered several unsuccessful amendments, questioned whether Perry’s intentions were rooted in a distrust of women and judges.

“I’m not really sure who it is you don’t trust — the girls, the judges or the entire judicial system?” Garcia asked.

See here for the background. The Senate version is not quite as bad as the original House version that passed, but as Nonsequiteuse notes, it’s still a farce that does nothing but infantilize women. It’s a cliched analogy, but can anyone imagine a similar set of hoops for a man to jump through to get a vasectomy or a prescription for Viagra? The only people who will benefit from this bill are the lawyers that will be involved in the litigation over it. Oh, and Eddie Lucio sucks. Good Lord, he needs to be retired. TrailBlazers, the Observer, and Newsdesk have more.

Bad bill #2:

In a dramatic turn of events, the House Calendars Committee on Sunday night reversed course and sent a controversial bill prohibiting health insurance plans sold on the Affordable Care Act’s marketplace from covering abortions to the full chamber for a vote.

Earlier in the night, the committee voted not to place Senate Bill 575 by Republican Sen. Larry Taylor on the lower chamber’s calendar for Tuesday — the last day a Senate bill can be passed by the House. After fireworks on the House floor instigated by a lawmaker who believed he had entered into an agreement to get the bill to the full chamber, the committee reconvened and reconsidered its vote.

Under SB 575, women seeking coverage for what Taylor has called “elective” abortions would have been required to purchase supplemental health insurance plans.

On Saturday, state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, had threatened to force a House vote to prohibit abortions on the basis of fetal abnormalities by filing an amendment to an innocuous agency review bill. But Stickland later withdrew the amendment, telling the Austin American-Statesman that he had agreed to pull it down in exchange of a vow from House leadership that they would move SB 575 forward.

The bill did make it out of the House State Affairs Committee, chaired by state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana. But when it got to Calendars, that committee voted it down, leading Stickland to go after Cook on the House floor. Stickland had to be separated from Cook, and House sergeants immediately ran over to prevent a lengthier tussle.

Again, infantilizing women. And speaking of infants, what more can be said about Jonathan Stickland? I know there’s a minimum age requirement to run for office. Maybe there needs to be a minimum maturity requirement as well. Hey, if we can force doctors to assume that women seeking abortions are children, we can assume that any first-time filer for office is a callow jerk. We sure wouldn’t have been wrong in this case.

Bad bill #3:

Senate Republicans on Monday voted to move the state’s Public Integrity Unit out of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office. The action was spurred in part by last year’s indictment of former Gov. Rick Perry.

The legislation by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, would move key decisions about investigating public officials to the Texas Rangers and away from the Democratic-controlled Travis County District Attorney.

The bill was approved in a 20-11 vote, with Democrats casting all the no votes.

[…]

Under the proposed law, any district attorney looking at suspicious activity by a state official would refer the matter to new Public Integrity Unit within the Texas Rangers. That office would then use a Texas Ranger to further investigate the allegation, with expenses handled by the Texas Department of Public Safety.

If confirmed, the recommendation for further action would be sent to the district attorney in the home county of the public official. That district attorney could pursue or drop the investigation.

See here for the background. As I said before, I don’t think this is the worst bill ever, but I do think it’s a guarantee that some future scandal will result from this. And as others have pointed out, it sets up legislators to be treated differently than every other Texan in this sort of situation. That’s never a good precedent to set.

And finally, bad bill #4:

Gays and same-sex couples could be turned away from adopting children or serving as foster parents under an amendment filed by a social conservative House member and expected to be heard Tuesday.

The measure also would allow child welfare providers to deny teenagers in foster care access to contraception or an abortion under a wide umbrella of religious protections for the state contractor.

Rep. Scott Sanford, R-McKinney, has filed the measure that gives state contractors for child welfare services the right to sue the state if they are punished for making decisions based on their religious beliefs.

The state could not force contractors to follow policies providing for contraception or allowing same-sex couples to adopt, for instance. If the state tried to terminate a contract or suspend licensing for the state contractors’ failure to abide by such polices, the contractor could sue, win compensatory damages, relief from the policy and attorneys fees against the state, according to the proposal.

Sanford tried to pass as separate bill earlier in the session, but it failed. The proposal now has resurfaced as an amendment to the sunset bill that would reconstitute the Department of Family and Protective Services.

I’m just going to hand this one off to Equality Texas:

TUESDAY, MAY 26TH, Rep. Scott Sanford will try again to pass an amendment allowing child welfare agencies to discriminate against LGBT families

Tell your State Representative to oppose the Sanford amendment permitting discrimination in Texas’ child welfare system.

Rep. Scott Sanford has pre-filed an amendment that he will seek to add to SB 206 on Tuesday, May 26th. This cynical “religious refusal” amendment would authorize all child welfare organizations to refuse to place a child with a qualified family just because that family doesn’t meet the organization’s religious or moral criteria.

If enacted into law, the Sanford Amendment would allow child welfare providers to discriminate against not just gay and transgender families, but also against people of other faiths, interfaith couples and anyone else to whom a provider objects for religious reasons.

The only consideration of a child welfare agency should be the best interest of the child – not proselytizing for a single, narrow religious interpretation.

SB 206 is not objectionable. However, adding the Sanford Amendment to SB 206 must be prevented.

Urge your State Representative to OPPOSE the Sanford Amendment to SB 206.

Amen to that.

Bill to kneecap Public Integrity Unit stuck in the Senate

For now, at least.

Rosemary Lehmberg

A Republican bill to transfer the Public Integrity Unit out of Travis County has snagged in the Senate, where the legislation does not have enough support to force a floor vote — at least for now.

The author of Senate Bill 10, Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, acknowledged Monday that she is still trying to line up support from Republican senators but added that she remains confident of success.

“I’m close,” Huffman said, raising the possibility of a vote this week. “We’re almost there.”

News that the bill had stalled came in a Monday letter by state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate and who has made moving the Public Integrity Unit out of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office a legislative priority.

Watson said SB 10 does not have the 19 votes needed to allow a Senate vote and asked Patrick not to take advantage of the planned absence of state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, who will be attending funeral services for his brother Joe Lucio this week.

With one senator absent, a floor vote could be triggered by support from only 18 senators.

“I want to make you aware that Sen. Lucio has told me that he would not vote” to bring SB 10 to the floor, Watson said in the letter. “As a result, SB 10 does not have sufficient support to allow for (a vote).”

[…]

Because all Democrats oppose the bill, Watson’s letter indicates that at least two Republicans are not on board with SB 10.

Huffman said she would bring SB 10 to the floor during Lucio’s absence only if she has 19 votes. “Clearly it’s going to be close,” she said. “I’m working to make sure I am answering everyone’s questions.”

See here and here for the background. I’d love to know who the two GOP holdouts are, and what their reasons are for hesitating. As of Wednesday, an effort to find a compromise to move the bill forward came up short.

A behind-the-scenes effort to get a controversial ethics bill moving again in the Texas Senate derailed on Wednesday, after a bipartisan plan to move the Public Integrity Unit to a white-collar investigative arm of the Texas Department of Public Safety was rejected by Senate leaders.

Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, author of Senate Bill 10 that would move the ethics-enforcing PIU from the Travis County District Attorney’s office to the Attorney General’s office said she declined an amendment by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, that was designed as a compromise to remedy strong opposition to the measure.

[…]

According to senators, the compromise proposed by Seliger and others would have transferred the PIU to a public-corruption section staffed by Texas Rangers at DPS. If an investigation warranted prosecution, the chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court would appoint a special prosecutor, according to a copy of the plan reviewed by the Houston Chronicle.

Huffman said she did not think the proposal was as good as her bill, even as she was continuing to review options to get the measure moving again.

“I’m still listening to suggestions, and I’m still working to get the votes,” Huffman said. “It’s still a work in progress. Let’s just say that.”

Not sure if this means Sen. Seliger is one of the holdouts or if he was just acting as a broker. My expectation at the beginning of the session was that this bill would pass the Senate (its future in the House would be less certain), but now I’m less sure. Again, it would be good to know the who and the why. One way or the other, I strongly suspect we’ll be hearing more about this.

Statewide non-discrimination ordinance filed

From the Inbox:

Sen. Jose Rodriguez

On the 179th anniversary of Texas Independence Day, Senator José Rodríguez (D-El Paso) filed Senate Bill 856, a bill that would prohibit discrimination in the areas of employment, public accommodation, housing, and state contracting based upon sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression. The bill was joint-authored by Senators John Whitmire (D-Houston), Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), Kirk Watson (D-Austin), and Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston).

“Fair treatment for workers, families, and people who visit our state—including gay and transgender people—is a crucial factor in the ongoing strength of the Texas brand. An inclusive Texas is crucial to recruiting and retaining talent, attracting entrepreneurs and company relocations, and maintaining a strong travel and tourism industry. Moreover, discrimination of any kind runs counter to the values of opportunity, personal faith, and freedom from discrimination that all Texans hold dear,” Senator Rodríguez said.

“Discrimination of any form has no place in Texas. Not in our schools, our government, or our services. I am proud to co-author this legislation and proud to stand strong for the fair treatment of all Texans especially our friends in the LGBT community who for too long have been the target of discrimination,” stated Senator John Whitmire, Dean of the Texas Senate.

“I’m proud to coauthor legislation to prevent fellow Texans from being discriminated against due to who they love,” said Senator Ellis. “All hardworking Texans, including our LGBT neighbors, should have the chance to earn a living, provide for their families, and live like everyone else without fear of getting fired or evicted solely because of who they are. ”

“Every Texan deserves to be treated fairly, and this legislation will make our state stronger by protecting this important ideal,” Senator Watson said.

“All Texans should enjoy equal protection under the law. This important legislation would ensure that our LGBT brothers and sisters can express who they are without fear of discrimination. It would also send a message to the rest of the world that Texas welcomes anyone that wants to contribute to our great state, regardless of sexual orientation,” Senator Garcia said.

According to the 2012 FORTUNE 500 Non-Discrimination Project from the Equality Forum, 48 of 52 Fortune 500 companies in Texas already prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. Many others also extend that protection to gender identity or expression. In 2012, the Center for American Progress reported that work environments hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) employees cost companies $1.4 billion in lost output every year.

Because Texas does not protect people who are gay or transgender from discrimination, many municipalities have already acted to extend discrimination protection to those residents. Currently 35.5% of Texans live in a city where discrimination against sexual orientation is prohibited. 33.9% live in a city where gender identity is protected.

“It is time—past time,” said Senator Rodríguez, “to make sure that all Texans have the independence our state claimed for itself almost 200 years ago. To be free of discrimination based on who you are, and to be treated fairly and equally is an environment Texas should be leading the way in creating, not being late to adopt. That’s what businesses want. But most importantly, all Texans deserve the right to provide for themselves and their families, secure a place to live, participate in the Texas economy, and contribute to the Texas economy, no matter what city they live in or visit and regardless of who they are or whom they love.”

Business leaders agree.

Catherine Morse, General Counsel and Director of Public Affairs at Samsung Austin Semiconductor: “Like so many other companies in Texas, Samsung is competing globally for the best talent. We believe that nondiscrimination measures will help us in that regard.”

Mellie Price, serial entrepreneur and Managing Director of Capital Factory: “For small and large businesses across Texas to compete for top talent, we must have workplaces and communities that are diverse and welcoming to all people.”

“I chose today—Texas Independence Day—to file this important legislation,” Senator Rodríguez concluded, “because Texas values—such as hard work, opportunity, and the Golden Rule—are the reason why Texas remains strong 179 years later. That is why we must act definitively to ensure everyone in the Lone Star State is treated fairly and equally.”

Here’s SB856. It’s not going to go anywhere – it’s going to be a hell of a fight to fend off legislation that would nullify local non-discrimination ordinances; yet another such bill was filed around the same time as Sen. Rordiguez’s bill – but that doesn’t matter. I’ll say again, if we don’t stand up for what we believe in, what are we even doing? I commend Sen. Rodriguez and his four co-authors for doing the right thing. I hope the rest of their colleagues follow their example. The full press release is here, and Equality Texas has more.

What’s the Lege going to do with the revenue?

Not as much as it should, of course, because the Lege never comes close to doing as much as it should. It’s a question of whether they’ll try to address some real problems, or just engage in an orgy of tax cutting.

BagOfMoney

Texans can expect tax relief, a laser focus on border security and more efforts to fight traffic congestion when a cash-flush Legislature convenes in January.

The budget priorities line up with campaign promises from Republican state leaders and lawmakers, who handily won their spots with a message of keeping state government lean while carefully weighing any additional spending for its benefits.

At least some outnumbered Democrats also appear to be on the tax-relief bandwagon, as the state welcomes the prospect of having $5 billion or more in greater-than-expected revenue when the current two-year budget period ends. Anticipated economic growth is expected to yield billions more, with the caveat that uncertain oil prices must temper expectations.

The tax-relief issue “crosses party lines,” said Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound. “Property taxes are really something that people would like to address.”

Besides property-tax relief – pushed by Sen. Dan Patrick, the incoming lieutenant governor – the potential for cutting the state’s business tax has been highlighted by Attorney General Greg Abbott, the governor-elect.

The devil, as always, is in the details of a state budget that totals $200 billion in the current two-year fiscal period, including state and federal funds that are largely spoken for before lawmakers convene. Education and health and human services alone take up nearly three-quarters of the total.

“I fully expect there to be some tax relief. The question is, what’s the nature of it?” said Rep. John Otto, a Dayton Republican who serves on the House Appropriations Committee.

[…]

What’s clear is that despite the billions of greater-than-predicted dollars awaiting lawmakers’ allocation, the list of programs that can use more money is far longer than the dollars can cover, especially in light of a spending cap on certain general revenue.

“It’s sort of easy when there’s not a lot of money. You just say we haven’t got the money,” said Rep. John Zerwas, a Richmond Republican who serves on the House Appropriations Committee. “Whereas now, I call it kind of a food fight. You’ve got a lot of food on the table, and people are going to start grabbing for it and trying to make sure they get their programs funded at a level that they want.”

Simply keeping current levels of services to a growing population would cost an additional $6 billion to $7 billion in state general revenue, said Eva De Luna Castro of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which focuses on services important to middle- and lower-income Texans. That’s without addressing the lingering cuts from 2011.

“All we’re hearing about is tax cuts. Nobody is talking about, ‘What did we cut out of the budget in 2011?’ ” she said. “I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that our future economy and prosperity are at stake. We need good roads but we also need good schools and universities.”

If you think that last bit is just the usual liberal happy talk, you should see what the Texas Association of Business’ wish list for the legislative session looks like. They expect to spend the next six to eight months fighting against the people they just supported for election on these issues, because that’s how they roll. “Border security” is a huge boondoggle for which all indicators are always that we should keep doing what we’ve been doing, which is to say to spend more and more and more on it. And no, the feds aren’t going to cover that check no matter how nicely Greg Abbott asks the President for it. As for property tax “relief”, the proposals put forth by Sen. Kirk Watson and others to increase the homestead exemption would be the most equitable way of doing this, which means it is also the least likely way of it happening. But I suppose anything is still possible before the session begins, just like the possibility than your favorite NFL team can go 16-0 while training camp is still going on. We’ll see what happens when the games start getting played for real.

Look behind the scenes

There’s another angle to consider the Perry indictment saga, which is that the indictment isn’t so much about what Rick Perry said publicly regarding Rosemary Lehmberg and the Public Integrity Unit but what he was saying behind the scenes. Erica Greider explores this, with a minor detour first.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

To review those facts, in 2013 the Travis County district-attorney, Rosemary Lehmberg, was arrested for drunk driving and sentenced to 45 days in jail. It was a penalty that no one could find fault with after viewing video footage of the field sobriety test and her subsequent behavior at the station that evening (she served about half the sentence and entered a treatment program after leaving prison). A number of Texans felt that she should resign, among them Perry, who publicly warned that he would use his line-item veto to remove state funding to the Public Integrity Unit—an anti-corruption outfit located in the Travis County DA’s office—unless she stepped down.

At the time, Democrats grumbled that Mr Perry’s threat was politically motivated. The Public Integrity Unit investigates corruption among statewide officials, which means, in the context, that it’s a check on Republicans like Perry and his pals. If Lehmberg stepped down, Perry would, in theory, have had a chance to replace a Democrat with a Republican appointee more friendly to his agenda. And after Lehmberg refused to resign and Perry vetoed the funding, the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice filed a complaint, charging that the veto had been politically motivated. That led to yesterday’s indictments; the charges are coercion and abuse of power.

Perry, unsurprisingly, responded Saturday by doubling down, dismissing the indictment as “outrageous.” More surprising, perhaps, is how quickly public opinion has moved in his favor, or at least in favor of proceeding with caution. Republicans were quick to rally round, but even independents and Democrats, after the initial fizzle faded, seemed skeptical of the indictment.

“Skeptical” is an overbid, some national pundits notwithstanding. (Some of those national pundits would do well to read Forrest Wilder. Or Progress Texas. Or me.) If Democrats here have tempered their response to this news, it’s not because we think Rick Perry is being railroaded, it’s because we’ve seen this movie before and we’ve learned the hard way how long a distance it is from “indictment” to “conviction”, especially a conviction that sticks. KBH walked. Tom DeLay may be let off the hook by the most pro-prosecution court in the country. We know better than to count our chickens before they hatch.

Back to the main thesis:

It’s worth emphasizing that the indictments don’t lay out all (or even much) of the special prosecutor’s evidence, and I suspect the focus on the veto, which is mentioned in the second count, will prove to be a red herring.

[…]

More intriguing, to me, is the chatter that around the time of the veto, Perry’s camp had some behind-the-scenes discussions with Travis County officials about a potential deal wherein, if Lehmberg resigned, he would appoint a Democrat to replace her. These rumors have been reported before, and several Democratic sources have suggested to me there’s something to it. This has always struck me as plausible. Perry’s critics argue that he was targeting Lehmberg opportunistically, as a way to stifle the PIU, either by removing its funding or by appointing a Republican to oversee it. But if Perry wanted to stifle the PIU, he could have simply vetoed its funding years ago (or, for that matter, left it in the care of the beleaguered Lehmberg). It would have been more shrewd, actually, to proceed quietly.

Worth considering is an alternative account of Perry’s political motivation. In June 2013, when he vetoed the PIU funding, he was signing the overall budget for the 2014-2015 biennium—a budget that restored billions of dollars of funding to public schools and expanded funding to worthy priorities such as higher education and mental health care. It was a budget that had been passed by the legislature with widespread bipartisan support and that was opposed only by a handful of tea partiers, who accused the Legislature and the governor of taking the state on a California-style spending spree. They were wrong, but they were clamorous, and Perry’s defense of the budget risked costing him some standing with the Republican base. My impression, at the time, was that the governor was aware of those risks. On a Monday, he said that his critics needed remedial math lessons; he then turned around and added abortion to the call for the special session that was already in progress. And on the day he signed the budget, to widespread applause, he made a point of using his line-item veto to remove state funding from a unit overseen by a Democratic district-attorney who had just spent several weeks in prison.

If my thinking is correct—if his goal was to cover his right flank rather than to gut the PIU—it’s not hard to believe that months later, Perry (or his people) would let Democrats know that he was open to replacing Lehmberg with a Democrat, that he would help find another job for Lehmberg, and even that he would restore funding to the PIU if they proceeded with such a deal. In such negotiations, though, the governor may have extended his constitutional authority, and so if Perry did have such discussions, I suspect turn out that the prosecutor’s evidence will have more to do with those backroom agreements than with a public warning about his intention to exercise his constitutional powers. If so, the legal case against Perry might be more serious. The ethical case against him would potentially less so, though.

Peggy Fikac followed the grand jury investigation as it was going on, and she fills in some details from her perspective outside the jury room.

The grand jury meets behind closed doors, but we sat in the hallway with our laptops, getting an idea of where the case was going by the people who came and went during a half-dozen meetings before the big one last Friday.

There were current and former Perry staffers, Travis County employees and state lawmakers.

Each had a part – directly or through their expertise – in the drama surrounding Perry’s threat to veto funding for the public corruption unit overseen by Democratic Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg unless she resigned after an ugly drunken-driving arrest.

The Republican governor had the clear right to veto the money, but the road to his indictment started with his use of that power to try to force out a locally elected official.

Each person’s presence was a piece of the story, even though it wasn’t clear how many of them actually testified to grand jurors.

There was Perry spokesman Rich Parsons. He was quoted in last year’s initial story on the threat, conveying Perry’s concerns to the Austin American-Statesman about “the integrity of the Public Integrity Unit” and saying his position had been relayed to Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin.

Watson was tapped to convey the veto threat to Lehmberg. At some point after the funding was killed, Travis County intergovernmental relations coordinator Deece Eckstein set up a meeting among Perry’s legislative director and former Democratic state Sen. Ken Armbrister from Victoria, Perry deputy chief of staff Mike Morrissey and Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, a Republican. Daugherty earlier told my colleague, Nolan Hicks, that he reached out to Perry’s office to see if there was a way to restore the two-year, $7.5 million in funds.

Sources told Hicks that if Lehmberg had been willing to resign, Perry aides offered to restore funding, allow Lehmberg to continue working at the DA’s office in some capacity and pick her top lieutenant as her successor.

All went into the grand jury room this summer; Armbrister did so several times.

Besides them were a former Perry chief of staff; his former and current general counsel, and an assistant general counsel; an adviser; and his former communications director.

Perry’s technology manager was among them; so was a Travis County Attorney’s office employee who works closely with the commissioners court; and Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, who last year pressed for Lehmberg’s resignation and said he couldn’t support using state dollars for her “utter disrespect of the law.”

Perry – who didn’t testify – told reporters in June that he didn’t initiate any sort of deal, and that he didn’t personally make phone calls with regard to asking Lehmberg to step down.

Asked about the post-veto machinations on Saturday, Perry said his decision making was clear. He said he had promised to “veto those dollars as long as they had someone in that office who I lost confidence in, and I did exactly what I said I would do.”

The takeaway from all this is that there’s almost certainly more to this than what we can see right now. If Mike McCrum is as smart and capable as people say he is, he’s surely got a few cards up his sleeve, which he’ll reveal when he’s ready. That doesn’t mean this can’t come crashing down around him once it hits a courtroom, but it does mean we don’t know enough to judge how this case will go just yet. Perry’s over the top response may be more of his usual bluster, or it may be because he knows what shoes are out there waiting to drop on him. We’ll know soon enough. Campos, Ed Kilgore, Alec MacGillis, the Trib, and Jim Moore have more.

More Democratic statewide possibilities

From this story about Democratic hopes for Wendy Davis’ presumed gubernatorial candidacy comes these tidbits about who else might be on the ticket with her.

Sen. Carlos Uresti

State Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, told Express-News columnist Gilbert Garcia this month that he is seriously considering a run for attorney general.

“Politics is about timing,” Uresti said. “And I certainly think it’s the right time for the Democratic Party and for myself, as well.”

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, said he is planning to file for re-election but, on the other hand, is “listening and entertaining” the idea of a statewide run.

“I have expressed some hesitancy to look at a statewide campaign for me in 2014, but politics is when timing and opportunity collide,” Fischer said. “And I also recognize that you cannot want change if you’re not willing to be the agent of that change.”

Other candidates being courted by Democrats to make the leap are state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, who has more than a million dollars in his campaign account, state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, and state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin. The three officials did not return calls for comment.

Some of these names have come up before, but this is the first time I can recall Sen. Uresti being in the conversation. I’m still mad at him for selling out on the sonogram bill in 2011, but it goes without saying that he’d be about a billion times better than anyone from the clown show on the GOP side of the house. Sen. Uresti is not up for election next year, so he can run for AG without giving up his seat, which is good. He has $70K on hand in his July finance report, which would need work. While I’d be happy to support Sen. Uresti’s candidacy if he runs, I have to say that Rep. Martinez-Fischer is much closer to my ideal for an AG candidate, at least in terms of temperament. But as I said in that other post, and as much as I admire his willingness to put his money where his mouth is, I think we still need that fighting spirit and tactical know-how in the House. It’s exactly people like Sen. Uresti – and Sen. Rodney Ellis, who I’m going to keep mentioning even if I’m the only one doing so – who have no election next year to worry about that need to step up. Kudos to him for being willing to do so.

One more thing from that story:

“Wendy Davis would not be able to help no-name Democrats for lieutenant governor, comptroller and attorney general, but if you had recognizable names with their own accomplishments, you could get a cumulative, positive effect,” said Cal Jillson, political science professor at Southern Methodist University.

Jillson said it’s more likely Democrats will pick up a healthy number of state House seats than a statewide post in 2014, but “that’s where you start.”

“When you’re zero for 100, you start looking for singles rather than home runs,” Jillson said.

This is true. We want to win, but we have to move the ball down the field, if you can stomach another sports metaphor. Everyone has a role to play, beginning with but certainly not ending with the candidates.

How I would campaign against Greg Abbott

If you’ve been following Greg Abbott’s gubernatorial campaign kickoff, you’ve probably noticed that in addition to being light on substance, the Attorney General has been hitting his personal story hard, in an attempt to portray him as some kind of empathetic figure.

How Greg Abbott views the process, without the wildebeest stampede

Who needs policies when you have destiny?

Over nearly two decades of public appearances as a political figure, Greg Abbott has not shied from noting the obvious: He uses a wheelchair.

During speeches, the Texas attorney general, who is now a gubernatorial candidate, is known to pre-emptively address any questions on the topic — often humorously — with an explanation of the 1984 accident that left him partially paralyzed. At campaign events dating back to 2002, he has shown brief video clips describing how a falling oak tree crushed his spinal cord while he was jogging with a friend through the Houston neighborhood of River Oaks.

He emerged on the statewide political scene in 1995, when, after Gov. George W. Bush appointed him to the Texas Supreme Court bench, the court building updated its facilities to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Court builds ramp to justice, for a justice,” reads one headline from the Austin-American Statesman.

Now, the adversity that Abbott has faced has become the symbolic centerpiece of his recently launched gubernatorial campaign, which he announced on Sunday — the 29th anniversary of his accident.

“My greatest fight began on this date,” he said to a crowd gathered in San Antonio. “It was a challenge that made my even being here, highly improbable.”

In a five-day, 10-city tour across the state since then, Abbott has been introducing himself as a fighter for strong Texas values, a candidate with a literal spine of steel. As someone who uses a wheelchair, he says, he knows what it means to struggle with physical and emotional challenges.

“I demonstrate what every Texan exemplifies every day — the ability to overcome adversity,” he said at a campaign stop in Houston.

See his heartwarming intro campaign video for a distilled version of this. Now we both know that the only thing Abbott fights for is the interests of the powerful. But a lot of people don’t know Greg Abbott well, and they don’t know that he’s never done a thing for regular Texans. To someone who doesn’t know Greg Abbott and is just tuning in now, he might look like an underdog himself, and as long as he manages to avoid talking about his actual record and his beliefs, he might sound downright appealing. The key is making sure that people know about the real Greg Abbott.

Whether Abbott can sway blue-collar voters is uncertain.

Joe Silva, 54, a worker at the boot factory and a lifelong El Pasoan, said he would probably vote for Abbott despite not knowing a lot about him.

“He’s a good man, I heard. He went through that tough accident,” he said.

But when asked if Abbott’s opposition to the federal health care reform legislation or support for the voter ID law mattered to him, Silva paused.

“Oh, I didn’t know that,” he said. “ I guess we’ll see what he has to say. I don’t know much about him.”

Remember, Abbott isn’t used to talking to people who don’t habitually vote in Republican primaries. That’s why he thinks that wooing voters by bragging about the things he’s done that they don’t like is a good idea. He just has no experience talking to non-true believers. That’s all to the good, but we can’t count on that. More to the point, we can’t let Abbott get away with using his personal story as a way to smooth out his extremely rough and, well, extreme edges. To borrow a page from the Karl Rove playbook, we need to turn his strength into a liability.

How to do that? There’s no question that Abbott has overcome a great deal of adversity in his life, the kind of adversity that most of us are fortunate to never face. That speaks well of his character and inner strength, but there’s an aspect to his success at overcoming that adversity that I have not yet seen mentioned anywhere. I don’t know Abbott’s medical history, but I think it’s safe to say that it includes surgeries, medication, physical therapy, medical equipment, and other things that undoubtedly cost a lot of money to provide. I have to wonder where Greg Abbott might be today if he had been one of the millions of Texans that don’t have health insurance at the time of his awful accident. Medical bills force millions of people into bankruptcy every year. Many other people deal with the problem by simply not getting the help and treatment that they need. Last week, Dear Prudence ran a letter from a woman who lost several teeth during a prolonged stretch of unemployment for her and her husband because she just couldn’t afford to go to the dentist. I guarantee you, there are a lot more stories like that in Texas than there are stories like Greg Abbott’s, and it’s not because the people behind those stories lacked character.

Thankfully for Greg Abbott, he never had to deal with any of that. Yet he has spent the past three years doing everything he can to keep the millions of Texans who lack health insurance from getting it by his relentless litigation against the Affordable Care Act. If he has any alternate ideas how to alleviate this longstanding problem, he’s not talking about it now, and never once in his ten plus years as Attorney General has he used his platform – never mind his personal experience as someone who relies heavily on quality medical care – to advocate for those in that position. In short, he would deny the same type of care that he himself has benefited from to millions of people who could not now receive it. His personal story may be admirable, but it sure hasn’t helped him to learn empathy. If Democrats don’t start pointing that out now, he might just be able to get through this campaign without people realizing that. We cannot let that happen.

Note that I made it this far without mentioning the multi-million dollar award that the strongly pro-tort “reform” Abbott received after his injury. Lisa Falkenberg talked to him about that, and somewhat to my surprised threw him off his talking points a bit. I say “somewhat to my surprise” because Sen. Kirk Watson tried to make an issue of this in the 2002 AG race and it largely backfired on him. That was before the strict med-mal cap was adopted, though, so perhaps another go at it might be worthwhile. It’s clear from reading Falkenberg’s piece that Abbott has the same lack of insight about just how far removed his own experience has been from so many other people’s as he does with health insurance. The point remains that there are some very tough questions that Abbott can and should face, and the sooner the better.

I do not expect another Ardmore

The AusChron tries to get out the Democrats’ strategy for Special Session 2.

When the Texas House convened last last month to pass, on third reading and onto the Senate for final passage, Senate Bill 5, the omnibus abortion regulations bill, Austin Rep. Elliott Naishtat heard several colleagues discussing whether House Dems would be ready to walk out – to break quorum – in order to stop the measure from moving forward.

Among the questions before Democrats as they face today’s start of a second-called special session, with passage of abortion regulations first on Gov. Rick Perry’s to do list, is whether a mid-summer, out-of-state sojourn may be in the cards. “There was talk about it” on the floor last month, he said, “and there will undoubtedly be talk about it again.”

[…]

With the 30-day special-called session only getting under way today, there is plenty of time for Republicans to maneuver to pass the divisive measures – as one Capitol staffer said last week, not even Davis can talk for 30 days. But there remain other strategies to explore, said Austin Democratic Sen. Kirk Watson – though he declined to offer specifics. “I’m not going to get into strategies,” he said, “but we’re not going to give up the fight.”

[…]

Requiring testimony in each chamber may be one way to moderate the legislation’s forward progress, but it is unlikely to do much to halt the ever-forward movement. So, might a mid-summer trip to a nearby state be the way to go? That’s certainly an option, says [Rep. Donna] Howard. Though, realistically, says Naishtat, he isn’t sure that it would work to derail the measure completely. “I don’t see how House or Senate Democrats could break quorum for the amount of time necessary to defeat the bill – it could be as much as three weeks,” he said. “On the other hand, other people doubted that Sen. Wendy Davis could pull off a filibuster. So what I’m saying is, you never know.” Indeed, Naishtat agrees that at this point, every option is on the table. And it would be “foolish,” he said, for Republicans to “underestimate our power, our intelligence, our mastery of the rules, and our commitment to doing everything legal to prevent the passage of … anti-pro-choice bills.”

I’m not privy to the Dems’ thinking, and I certainly wouldn’t dismiss any feasible possibility out of hand, but I have a hard time seeing how a quorum break would be successful. As with the Davis filibuster, all it can do is delay. It can’t prevent any of this awful legislation from passing, because Rick Perry can just keep calling more sessions, which you know he will. The reason why Ardmore was doable in 2003 was that the Dems only needed to be gone for five days. As with the previous special session, the re-redistricting bill came up late, and it was close enough to the deadline for passing bills out of the House for the Senate to take up that they could bug out on Monday and return on Saturday having accomplished their task. Busting quorum now would be like what the Senate Dems tried to do later that summer. As was the case back then, there was no magic day after which you could say you were in the clear. Maybe they’ve though this through and they know what their endgame is, but I have my doubts. It’s asking an awful lot of a lot of people, and I don’t know how practical it is. I hate to be a wet blanket, and I could be wrong about this, but that’s how I see it.

Two more factors to consider. One is that in the aftermath of Ardmore and Albuquerque, there were some rule changes made in each chamber to make future quorum busts more difficult and more punitive to the fleeing party. I don’t remember the details, but I do feel confident that the Rs would be extremely vengeful towards a caucus that skipped town. Two, back in 2003 the Governors of Oklahoma and New Mexico were both Democrats, and thus unwilling to cooperate with the efforts to locate and extradite the Killer Ds. Both Governors are Republicans now, so no such assistance would be in the offing. The only neighboring state now with a Democratic Governor is Arkansas, but I would not want to put my fate in that state’s hands. The nearest state where I’d feel safe, politically speaking at least, is Colorado. Point being, any out of state excursion would need to be done by air, not by bus, which increases the cost, the risk factor, and the likelihood of something going wrong because there’s just too much you can’t control.

Anyway. If it were up to me, I’d do everything I could to drag the proceedings out, while giving the crazier members of the GOP caucus as many opportunities to say something as stupid as Rep. Laubenberg did last session, and I’d lay whatever groundwork I could for litigation to block the law. The name of the game is the 2014 election. Go down fighting, keep everyone engaged, and be ready to pick up where you left off as soon as the session ends. Be sure to read the whole AusChron story, there’s a lot more in there besides quorum breaking.

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.

Perry will veto Integrity Unit funds unless Lehmberg resigns

This could be checkmate for Rosemary Lehmberg.

Rosemary Lehmberg

Gov. Rick Perry will veto financing for the public integrity unit — the state’s ethics enforcement division — unless embattled Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg resigns, an official close to the governor said Tuesday.

The Austin American-Statesman reported Monday night that Perry would use a line-item veto to cut funding for the unit unless Lehmberg, who was convicted and served jail time for drunken driven this past spring, steps down.

So far, Lehmberg has declined to do that, and Democrats are concerned that if she does, Perry would be able to choose her replacement.

“Ultimately this is Rosemary’s decision,” said state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin. “If she decides to resign, I will work with the governor’s office to make sure that whoever is appointed to that position is someone who represents Travis County appropriately.”

The deadline to veto bills, including line items in the state budget, is this weekend. Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle said the governor’s office is “going through the budget line by line, and the governor has deep concerns over the integrity of the Public Integrity Unit.”

The Statesman story is behind their new paywall, which unlike the Dallas Morning News doesn’t appear to be subverted via a Google News search. I’ve been of the opinion that Lehmberg’s crime doesn’t necessitate resignation, but unless there’s something else to this Perry has the trump card. It would be better for Lehmberg to resign and a new DA to be elected next year than for her to risk the funding of the Public Integrity Unit. If Sen. Watson can work with Perry’s office to name a replacement – I’ve said before that allowing Travis County Commissioners Court to nominate a replacement would be a good idea – then so much the better. It would be unfortunate for Lehmberg if it comes to this, but the office is bigger than she is. Texas Politics, Juanita, and Texpatriate have more.

Special session is called

And no one is surprised.

With the ink barely dry on the bills passed during the 83rd Legislature’s regular session, Gov. Rick Perry called lawmakers back into an immediate special session to consider redistricting measures for the Legislature and the Texans who serve in the U.S. Congress.

Speculation had been mounting for days that Perry would follow Attorney General Greg Abbott’s recommendation to reconvene the Legislature so lawmakers can approve the court-drawn maps currently in place for legislators and members of the U.S. House. Republican leaders believe it will help the state’s case in court and forestall any delays of next year’s primaries.

For now, the agenda for the 30-day session only includes redistricting, though that could change. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who is anxious to burnish his conservative credentials after his loss in the U.S. Senate race to Tea Party firebrand Ted Cruz, wants Perry to add to the agenda a host of conservative measures that failed during the regular session. Dewhurst also says he will not adhere to the so-called two-thirds rule, which the minority party can use to block divisive legislation.

Many conservative activists have advocated for the state Senate, where the GOP has a 19-12 edge, to jettison the rule, which has kept many of their initiatives bottled up but also has reduced the threat of open partisan warfare.

In a letter to the governor Monday, Dewhurst said he needed to the flexibility to pass a variety of pet conservative issues, including abortion restrictions, expanded gun rights and school vouchers.

“Given that a number of members from both chambers have demonstrated their unwillingness to find consensus on these important legislative items, I can see no other alternative than to operate under a simple majority vote in the special session,” Dewhurst wrote.

That pronouncment is already causing a stir. Though the two-thirds tradition has been lifted in redistricting measures during special sessions, Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said it generally remains in place for other issues. Watson said the Legislaure shouldn’t be used to bolster Republicans’ political fortunes with issues that failed to get approved in the regular session.

“Middle class Texans have a lot on their plate right now,” said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin. “What they don’t need is to worry about somebody’s party primary. We need to be doing the business of the state and not wasting taxpayer dollars trying to carry out a political agenda just because they didn’t get it achieved during the regular session.”

So far, the call is only for redistricting, but Perry can add other items at any time, or call other sessions as he sees fit. The issue of the 2/3 rule, which as I often noted was frequently described as being “not in use” for special sessions, is already an issue as noted by BOR.

Initially, Dewhurst told reporters that the 2/3rds rule would not be in effect for a special session. During tonight’s floor discussion, Senator Kirk Watson attempted to determine if the 2/3rds rule would be in effect for the special session.

Watson also asked specifically about “blocker bills,” which are passed out of committee quickly to occupy the top spot on the calendar and thus force Senators to suspend the rules to bring up any other bills, which requires 2/3rds of the Senators to vote for the suspension.

Dewhurst claimed that there would not be blocker bills and that there hadn’t for 10 years; Watson countered with actual historical examples of blocker bills in previous special sessions. If there is no blocker bill, then there is no need for the 2/3rds rule to be used to bring a bill up for a floor vote.

Much of this early questioning is about potential future redistricting litigation.

[…]

Watson’s request to clarify the 2/3rds rule and [Sen. Rodney] Ellis’s motion to get it in the record is in response to previous cases in which the Federal courts slammed Texas for departing from traditional procedural norms to force through a discriminatory map. Should Dewhurst ignore the 2/3rds rule during the special session, that hands Democrats — who would be on the receiving end of any partisan redistricting malfeasance — a huge weapon to use in a future lawsuit against whatever maps might pass without it.

At this point it’s not clear to me what the rules are for the special session. The Senate is now in recess until Thursday, though the House will gavel in tomorrow for no clear reason. The Senate Redistricting Committee will meet Thursday morning, but beyond that we’ll have to wait and see what happens. Even if the Senate adopts a two-thirds rule at the beginning, it can always remove it later, by passing the blocker bill or by other means. If Perry wants to grant Dewhurst’s wishes, then that is what will happen.

Don’t count your victories too soon

While I wouldn’t call this legislative session anything to be terribly happy about, it could have been far worse. That’s because a whole lot of nasty red meat bills never got voted on, and Democrats are justifiably happy about that. I’m happy, too, but not quite ready to do a victory dance about it.

All abortion-related bills were stopped before they could reach the Senate or House floor this session, marking a rebound for Democrats after Republican efforts successfully scaled back family planning funding and abortion resources in 2011.

“Democrats stuck together very well this session and made strong arguments and strong advocacy on behalf of a woman’s right to choose,” said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who leads the Democratic caucus. “Just this week, I’ve had pressure from leadership pushing to bring up bills in an almost threatening way, and we have stood up to that. … Now we’re at the end of the session, and they’re dead.”

At least 24 abortion-related bills were filed this session, some of which garnered the support of Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Three marquee proposals for anti-abortion lawmakers failed to gain traction: a bill that would have banned abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy, a bill that would increase regulations for abortion facilities and a bill that would require doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges to a hospital within 50 miles.

[…]

The bills were somewhat different from last session, Watson said, but Democrats were victorious on women’s health issues this session. “I feel very strongly that we won,” he said.

Maybe. I sure hope Sen. Watson is right. But as I worried about two weeks ago, the real danger is in a special session. While we appear to have avoided the need for a special session on the budget and other major priorities, the buzz now is that there will be a special session on redistricting. If that’s all it’s about, then there’s nothing to worry about. But special sessions are about what Rick Perry wants, and to a lesser degree what the people who have Rick Perry’s ear want. One of those people is David Dewhurst, who needs as much of a boost to his wingnut credentials as he can muster, and he’s urging Perry to call a special on all the wingnut business that went unfinished.

Dewhurst told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on Thursday that Gov. Rick Perry should call lawmakers back quickly to pass several other conservative-backed bills that have stumbled in the regular session.

In addition to redistricting, Dewhurst said lawmakers should return to take up measures on abortion, school choice, guns on college campuses, drug testing for welfare recipients, the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association and the state’s constitutional spending cap.

[…]

“I’m mad at the partisanship that blocked these bills, and I’m particularly mad at some of the things that happened over in the House,” he told the Star-Telegram’s Dave Montgomery. “But at the end of the day, I think that everybody’s here trying to do the best they can.”

Though Perry threatened a special session if lawmakers failed to send him a budget that contained $2 billion in water infrastructure funding and $1.8 billion in tax relief, he has so far stayed quiet about calling for overtime on other issues. Perry’s office said on Thursday that the governor would not make any announcements until the regular session concludes.

But Dewhurst said he had urged Perry on Wednesday to call lawmakers back. “I think he’s seriously considering doing that,” Dewhurst said.

Dewhurst almost certainly feels like he needs a special session to score some wingnut victories to help him win his next primary, especially after his loss to Ted Cruz. of course, just because Dewhurst is asking doesn’t mean Perry will answer. He has his own stuff to deal with, and he’ll do whatever he thinks is best for himself, as he always does. But it’s hard to see how calling a wingnut special hurts Perry, especially if he is running for something, in 2014 or 2016. Despite progress made in this past week, there’s still a lot of unfinished real business, and nay failures there definitely opens the window for a special. If that happens, then all bets are off. I remain very concerned about this. Burka has more about Dewhurst.