Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Tom Craddick

Let’s call it what it is

I do not understand the resistance to renaming the Texas Railroad Commission to reflect what it actually does.

The Railroad Commission is the state’s chief regulator of oil and gas production. The agency no longer deals with railroads yet still regularly receives calls from Texans about train schedules.

In 2005, when its last shred of authority over railroads was transferred to another agency, the Texas Railroad Commission’s name became a misnomer.

The commission, with the support of all three elected commissioners, is pushing the Legislature to rename the agency the Texas Energy Commission. Despite apparent widespread agreement that the current name is confusing at best, misleading at worst, the effort may fail.

Over the last five years, multiple efforts have stalled and always at the same place: the House Energy Resources Committee.

The roadblock has been former Speaker Tom Craddick, who as Speaker and then again as a regular member has managed to block bills that would effect this change. I don’t know what his reasons are; he didn’t comment for the story. I guess it’s good to know that Craddick can always be counted on to oppose anything sensible or beneficial, but that doesn’t really get us anywhere. I can at least understand this objection:

[Myra Crownover, R-Denton, vice chairwoman of the House Energy Committee] said her opposition was for financial concerns. The Railroad Commission estimated the costs of changing its name — putting up new signs and redoing forms and publications — at $100,000. Crownover wanted the agency to hire more pipeline safety inspectors for the Barnett Shale area.

“I feel strongly that the Railroad Commission needs every dollar in their budget to ensure the safe and effective regulation of the oil and gas industry,” Crownover said in a statement.

Well okay, but $100K is literally nothing in the context of the state budget. The amount is too trivial to be held hostage to an either-or question like the one Crownover raises. There’s really no good reason not to do this.

Berman to challenge Straus

I can’t say I’ve been thrilled with Joe Straus as Speaker of the House. He’s worlds better than Tom Craddick was, which still isn’t saying that much, but he hasn’t been all that friendly to his largely Democratic group of supporters. Which I expected to some extent, but still. Having said all that, I’ll take Straus every day of the week over crazy Leo Berman.

Berman, a conservative known for his tough anti-illegal immigration positions, isn’t a surprise challenger to Straus, who took office last session with the support of moderate lawmakers in both parties. Berman has courted the support of the anti-establishment Tea Party, speaking at the group’s convention, and has made his displeasure with Straus’ leadership on the immigration issue known.

Last week, he told WFAA-TV in Dallas that he plans to file legislation similar to a recent Arizona law that gives local police more authority to enforce immigration regulations, even though he believes Straus would block his efforts […]

Of course, I’d prefer a case of the mumps to having Leo Berman in charge of the House, so again, this isn’t saying that much. The best result of all, naturally, would be a Democratic majority in the House. Failing that, another session of Speaker Straus will have to do. Boy, I sure can give an enthusiastic endorsement, can’t I?

An early look at redistricting

The House Redistricting Committee is holding some hearings around the state in advance of the 2011 Census reports, and if there’s one thing we know already, it’s that West Texas will be losing influence next year.

The state population increased from 20.8 million in 2000 to an estimated 24.8 million in 2009, or 18.8 percent, but the Hispanic population grew at a faster rate, Jordan said. If the trend continues, as early as the next decade Hispanics will be the largest ethnic group in the state.

Though in more than a half-dozen counties in the Panhandle/South Plains region Latinos are now the majority, their population growth won’t compensate for the fact that the region stands to lose at least a Texas House seat and a congressional district when the Texas Legislature redraws the districts next year, some lawmakers said after the two-hour hearing ended.

“The Dallas area is going to gain some districts, but we are going to lose some,” state Rep. Delwin Jones, R-Lubbock, chairman of the Redistricting Committee, told reporters after the hearing. “Right now this is guesswork, or maybe I should say an estimate, because we won’t know for sure until December when we get the official figures.

“However, it doesn’t look good for us in West Texas,” Jones added. “We are going to lose representation.”

Other lawmakers reached the same conclusion.

“One way or another the Panhandle is going to be in trouble,” said Rep. Chente Quintanilla, D-Tornillo, in El Paso County.

[…]

At a hearing in February, members of the Redistricting Committee were told that the new congressional districts would represent 811,221 people compared to about 750,000 now, and Texas House districts would represent about 167,652 compared to about 140,000 now. This means the Panhandle/South Plains region would have to have at least one million people to keep all of its six House districts. Current estimates put the region’s population at about 800,000.

Three senior members of the Lege from West Texas won’t be back next year – Jones, who was defeated in the Republican primary; Carl Isett, and David Swinford, each of whom retired. It’s going to be a rough year for that part of the state next year. In addition to that, you have to wonder what will become of Rep. Michael Conaway’s district, which was created in 2003 at the insistence of then-Speaker Craddick, who wanted a Congressional seat for Midland. Objectively speaking, there was no real reason for that, and the Census data will make it even harder to justify. Without someone of influence pushing to protect it, who knows what will happen.

As the story notes, West Texas’ loss will likely be the Metroplex’s gain.

Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, said lawmakers next session will have a chance to create winnable districts for Hispanics in North Texas — not just in the Texas House, but state Senate and U.S. House.

“I would hope that everybody sees the light, that Texas has diversified,” Alonzo said.

He recalled it took a voting rights lawsuit for him to have a chance to win 17 years ago in House District 104, redrawn by the courts to enhance Mexican-American voters’ chances of electing one of their own.

“In Texas, we’ve had to go through litigation to make it happen,” Alonzo said. “I would hope we don’t have to go to that point.”

I wouldn’t count on that, but you never know. The more I think about it, the more I believe that the new Congressional district slated for the D/FW area will have to be a Democratic seat. The Congressional map up there is anything but representative right now. Of the 25 legislative members who represent Dallas and Tarrant counties, 13 are Democrats, yet only one member of Congress (Eddie Bernice Johnson) out of the nine whose districts include either Dallas or Tarrant is a Democrat. Among other things, the electoral trends are not sustainable for the Republican incumbents – Kenny Marchant and Pete Sessions need some help, with Sam Johnson and Michael Burgess not far behind them. Drawing a new seat to soak up some Democratic voters would benefit them.

Anyway. I believe a compromise at the Congressional level, one that aims to mostly protect incumbents, is still a viable possibility. The main reason for that not to happen is for someone with an interest in the outcome to push for a more partisan plan. As yet, I have not seen an indication of that, but it’s still early days. Legislative redistricting worries me more, especially if Rick Perry gets re-elected. We’ll see how it goes.

Edwards drops lawsuit to challenge election result in HD146

Former State Rep. Al Edwards, who had filed a lawsuit challenging his electoral loss in the HD146 primary to Rep.-elect Borris Miles, has now dropped the suit, which should clear Miles’ path to Austin.

Miles’ lawyer, Randall “Buck” Wood, of Austin, said he received notice Thursday afternoon that Edwards had dropped his suit, but he was not completely sure that was the end of the matter.

“I’m sitting here mystified,” Wood said. “I filed a motion Tuesday to dismiss, but I don’t know if they’ve actually dropped the lawsuit or they’re just trying to buy time. The thing is, they’re beyond the statute of limitations, so they can’t re-file it. I sure would like to know if something is going on.”

Edwards’ attorney Jay Beverly confirmed that Edwards had withdrawn his challenge.

“The Edwards lawsuit has been dismissed,” he said. “We believe there are good legal grounds for going forward, but Rep. Edwards has decided not to go forward for his own reasons.”

If that’s the case, then I wish him well. I was thinking that an election contest in the House might still be possible, but according to Texas law:

Sec. 241.003. PETITION. (a) The contestant must state the grounds for the contest in a petition in the same manner as a petition in an election contest in the district court.

(b) The contestant must file the petition with the secretary of state not later than the seventh day after the date the official result of the contested election is determined. The contestant must deliver a copy of the petition to the contestee by the same deadline.

That would suggest that the end of the lawsuit is the end of any remaining challenge Edwards may make. Congratulations to Rep.-elect Miles on his now-official victory.

Being the cynical type, I have to wonder what other reasons Edwards may have had for giving up his pursuit. One is money, though the word I’d heard was that funds would be available from interested parties – read: “Tom Craddick supporters” – for this challenge. The other possible reason I can think of is that pursuing this lawsuit meant digging up evidence to support allegations of electoral fraud. Given that meant accusing fellow Democrats of criminal behavior, it’s possible Edwards ran into some resistance. It’s probably a better strategy just to wait two more years and try again in what should be a higher-turnout race, which worked well for him last time, as Edwards was the familiar name for a lot of casual voters even though Miles was the incumbent. Miles is better known now, and one presumes he won’t have anything like the troubles he encountered during that one prior term in office, so maybe that won’t be so successful this time. It’s still probably the better shot, and it won’t alienate any potential voters. Besides, the upcoming session is going to be rough, what with budget and redistricting issues to deal with. If you’re going to pick one to miss, this would be the one.

The question to ask

From State Rep. Mike Villarreal’s blog, explaining the benefit of the Affordable Care Act for Texans:

Beyond this next year, many of the six million uninsured Texans will have health insurance, improving their health and financial stability, and saving all of us money. Middle class and low-income Texans who don’t have insurance through their jobs may receive subsidies on a sliding scale based on their income. For example, a family of four making less than $88,000 would be eligible for assistance. Low-income individuals will now be eligible for Medicaid. If you want to know what’s in health care reform for you, take a look at this interactive tool from the Washington Post.

Let’s put aside for a moment the political gamesmanship and the bogus legal posturing and the misleading and lying about what the ACA is and isn’t, and focus for a second on those six million uninsured Texans. Why is it, after eight (or more) years of Rick Perry, David Dewhurst, Greg Abbott, and (mostly) Speaker Craddick, that we had so many uninsured Texans? We know what these guys have done to take insurance away from many Texans. What have they done to provide it? When they say “we don’t want this”, how many of those six million are they speaking for? When they say “we can do a better job of it on our own”, why haven’t they done it? Never mind what they say they want to do next year when the Lege is in session. Why haven’t they already done it in all of the legislative sessions we’ve had since they were put in charge? Maybe the reason they’re so mad about what the federal government has done is because it has put their own lack of accomplishment in such stark relief. Why didn’t they do more – hell, why didn’t they do anything – to help these people? Their failure speaks for itself.

Fixing school finance, the neverending story

Work on dealing with the state’s revenue shortfall and what it will mean for the schools is already underway.

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, co-chair of the 15-member panel, acknowledged that the funding system is in trouble and needs change – particularly with a massive revenue shortfall facing the Legislature when it convenes in nine months.

“The truth of the matter is there is no money,” the Plano Republican said.

She added that lawmakers are working with an “antiquated” system for financing education that has been in and out of legal trouble in the courts for several years.

“Rather than rearranging the chairs on the Titanic, which we have been doing all these years, why don’t we take them off the deck and look at things from a completely different perspective?” she told the committee, made up of eight House and Senate members and seven citizen appointees.

She asked for proposals for an entirely new system of funding schools. Currently, local school districts levy significant property taxes on homes and businesses, the state provides tens of billions of dollars in funding every year, and districts get a small amount of federal money.

If you really want proposals, there’s always a state income tax. It would better and fairer system in so many ways, not the least of which being that unlike property taxes, income taxes won’t go up beyond your ability to pay them. That isn’t going to happen so I won’t waste any more time on it. There’s also rolling back at least some of the unaffordable 2006 property tax cuts, and fixing the business margins tax to make it fairer. Do those two things and you can at least fill in the revenue hole that we dug back then, and most of these problems go away. Yeah, I know, it’s too easy.

What if you made property taxes a little more like income taxes? By that, I mean add in higher rates for properties valued above, say, a million dollars. Not for the whole thing, of course, but for the value of it above that level. Put in a bump at a million dollars, and another one at five million, and see how much that brings in. Maybe you can make the homestead exemption a little bigger as well, to ease the burden a bit for folks on the lower end. Assuming this passes constitutional muster – I have no idea if it would or wouldn’t, I’m just brainstorming like Sen. Shapiro asked – why not give it a try? Yes, I know the answer to that question, too. If you keep shooting these ideas down like that, we’re not going to get very far. Anyway, that’s my brilliant yet stupid idea for the day.

Alternately, there’s the Dan Patrick approach.

Patrick thinks Texas has to stop relying on property taxes, a move he sees as ultimately lethal to the state’s economy. He’s suggesting increasing the sales tax by 2 percentage points and eliminating some sales tax exemptions while reducing property taxes by 30 percent to 40 percent.

He estimates that someone who makes $60,000 a year would pay about $200 more a year in sales tax under his plan.

“I have not talked to a homeowner or a business owner that would not swap $200 a year more in sales tax for lower property tax,” he said.

Of course they would. They’d be paying less in taxes. But let’s be clear on what that means: Either Patrick’s proposed tax swap means a net decrease in revenue for schools, which isn’t going to help anything, or it means a higher tax burden on some other people. In particular, it means a higher tax burden on people who aren’t homeowners, or whose property taxes are already low. In other words, it would mean higher taxes mostly for poorer people. That will be the case even if Patrick’s proposal is a net tax cut, since obviously not everyone pays property taxes. We know from the last time the Lege proposed a property tax for sales tax swap that it meant a significant tax increase on the poorest Texans. And that was for a one cent rise in the sales tax – Patrick wants to double that increase. Any way you slice it, this is a great deal for a small number of people who don’t need the help, and a terrible deal for the vast majority of Texans.

We’re not likely to have a Speaker’s race

Jason Embry makes the case that the start of the next legislative session will be much calmer than the previous one, and it’s hard to argue.

Republican Joe Straus finished his first session as speaker of the Texas House well-positioned to return for a second. His chances of remaining speaker seem only to have improved in the 10 months since.

The House remains closely divided between 77 Republicans and 73 Democrats. But a number of big and small events recently suggest more success for the speaker.

[…]

Questions persist about whether supporters of former GOP Speaker Tom Craddick can make a comeback and overtake Straus, much the way Straus overtook Craddick last year. But several staunch Craddick supporters opted not to seek re-election, and Straus won over some other Craddick backers during last year’s session. Even if voters sweep a wave of conservatives into office this fall (Straus is slightly more moderate than Craddick), would Republican lawmakers vote out the man at the helm when the party picked up seats?

[…]

Looking to November, don’t discount the Democrats, who proved themselves better at winning legislative races than Republicans by capturing 11 seats from 2005 to 2008.

Unhappiness with Gov. Rick Perry or incumbents in general could lift Dems to a House majority, and the party will get out-of-state financial help. Plus, Straus still has to prove he can carry his party to victories in November.

I think the odds are greater at this point of a Democratic majority than of a pro-Craddick majority. There wasn’t nearly the drama and intrigue in this year’s primaries as there was in years past, thanks to Craddick’s diminished role and lack of a giant PAC fund, and while there’s still a few runoffs that could elevate a more-friendly-to-him candidate to the House, overall the potentially pro-Craddick forces didn’t gain any ground. Plus, there’s just no chatter about a Craddick comeback, which you’d expect if there were something afoot. If we’ve learned anything this decade, it’s that ousting a Speaker isn’t easy to do, and doesn’t happen in the dark. If we wake up on November 3 with a Democratic majority in the House, that will be one thing, though even then it’s not certain it would mean a new Speaker. Otherwise, I figure it’ll be another session for Straus.

Two Trib primary stories

The Trib has done a series of good, informative stories on primary battles across the state, which I recommend you read. Two of their most recent are especially worthwhile:

First is HD43, in which freshman Dem Rep. Tara Rios Ybarra is being challenged by JM Lozano.

Lozano’s strategy is to label Rios Ybarra a “red Texan.” Her campaign contributions from Houston homebuilder Bob Perry ($10,000 from Jan. 22 through Feb. 20) and the Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC (about $145,000 in-kind during the same time frame), both well-known backers of Republicans, are all the evidence he needs. His vision is of a blue Texas, he says, and that means weeding out what she represents. “The first thing we have to do is get rid of all the closet Republicans from the Democratic Party. My opponent is one of them,” he says. “You cannot have a strong Democratic Party if you have people that are beholden to the other party because you take 90 percent of your funding from them.”

Rios Ybarra defends her “moderate” approach and her bipartisan tendencies, and the support she says comes with them, because of the economic hardship in District 43, which is one of the poorest in the state. It covers six counties — Jim Hogg, Brooks, Willacy, Kenedy, Kleberg and northern Cameron — and about a third of the families with children live in poverty. Nearly 40 percent of residents have less than a high school education. “I believe, in this country, that it isn’t about handouts,” she says. “I believe ultimately it’s about creating opportunity, and that is done when we have a strong small-business sector. If that resonates across the aisle, that resonates across the aisle.”

But Lozano’s accusations carry weight with at least one party mainstay. In a rare endorsement before a contested primary, the Jim Hogg County Democratic Party is backing Lozano. “A Democrat primarily financed by Republicans is no Democrat at all,” its chair, Juan Carlos Guerra, said in a Feb. 19 statement. Guerra claimed Rios Ybarra “hijacked” the term “Democrat” to claim victory in 2008 in this Democratic-majority district. “We will not sit back as a Democratic Party any longer and allow Republicans to infiltrate our party,” the statement continued. “She misled the voters once, but that will not happen again.”

An unfazed Rios Ybarra contends that her first term in the House, when she passed seven bills, shows her mettle. One that she’s most proud of, she says, allows access to Texas beaches by disabled people in motorized vehicles — and yet Lozano has criticized her for it. “He made fun of a bill that was given to me by the mother whose son was a quadriplegic and he couldn’t have access to the beach,” she complains.

A stone-faced Lozano says, “Ask her who gave her that bill. It was a lobbyist.”

I don’t care so much about who donates to whom as I do how you vote and what you support, and I don’t really know enough about Rios Ybarra’s record to judge. Having said that, anyone who is that strongly supported by TLR is a concern. And Rios Ybarra was widely considered to be a Craddick supporter in 2008 when she knocked off Juan Escobar. That turned out not to matter then, and it’s unlikely to be an issue this time around, but it’s not impossible. On balance, if I were voting in that race, I’d be voting for Lozano.

And in a race where I already know who I’m voting for, the Ag Commish race.

Gilbert and Friedman, who were both running for governor in those now-forgotten days before Bill White threw his hat in, may find themselves coveting the same job, but their notions of what that job is could hardly be more different. Gilbert emphasizes wonky expertise and hands-on experience, while Friedman is all showmanship — few campaign stops go by without him uttering his one-liner “No cow left behind!” or mentioning his desire for his ashes to be scattered in Gov. Rick Perry’s hair.

Before Friedman’s run for governor as an independent in 2006, he says Clinton told him, “Find a few issues that are close to your heart and hammer them relentlessly.” He took the former president’s advice then and chose a couple things this time too, focusing on his passion for animal rescue and shelters. The rest, he says, he’ll leave to the experts.

“Clearly Kinky has no direction other than he wants animals to run free, and for those that nobody wants anymore he wants to build shelters in every county,” says Gilbert. “Those are noble ideas and a fairy-tale way to live life, but it’s just not practical.”

Well, this race is a clear choice, that’s for sure. Either you like what Kinky is selling, or you grew tired of it four years ago and you prefer the clearly better qualified Hank Gilbert. I really don’t know how this one will turn out, but as I said, I know who I’m supporting.

HD146 overview

Here’s the Chron on the one local Democratic legislative primary, Round Three of Al Edwards versus Borris Miles.

Edwards has represented District 146 since 1979 — except for 2006-08, when Miles won the heavily black district. It has some of Harris County’s poorest neighborhoods, including much of Third Ward.

The 71-year-old Edwards, a lay minister and real estate broker, is third in seniority in the Legislature. “There’s no comparison in terms of abilities and skills and experience,” he said of Miles.

“Seniority is only as good as the person whose hands it’s in,” Miles scoffed. “If my representative is so powerful on the House floor, we should be a land of milk and honey. We’re not.”

Not really much to say here. With Tom Craddick on the sidelines, this race has not had the high profile it had in 2006 or 2008. Edwards doesn’t have that much money, certainly not compared to those previous years, and what he has is mostly PAC money, plus $15,000 from Bob and Doylene Perry. Of course, Miles is a self-funder, it’s just that he just won’t have to go toe-to-toe with the big moneybags that kept Team Craddick in power. As you know, Miles is my preferred choice. I don’t have a good feel for how this is going to play out, but for what it’s worth, more Democratic early votes have been cast in HD146 – 3,001 between the Fiesta Mart and the Sunnyside MSC through Wednesday – than any other early vote location. We’ll see how it goes.

McCall not running for re-election

State Rep. Brian McCall (R, Plano), one of the Republicans that helped oust Tom Craddick as Speaker, will not run for re-election next year.

McCall, 51, said he is looking at other opportunities because it is time to try something new after 19 years in the House.

“When I took my first oath of office, Bill Clinton was the governor of Arkansas and George Bush had never run for state political office,” said McCall, a businessman and investor.

He said when he first ran for the Legislature, he set a few simple goals, most of which he said he’s accomplished.

“The fifth one was to leave on a high note,” McCall said. “So few in politics know when to get off the stage.”

House Speaker Joe Straus praised McCall as a friend, leader and consensus builder.

“His career has been nothing short of outstanding,” said Straus, R-San Antonio. “He helped set the tone for effective governing in the House.”

McCall is a well-respected member, and he certainly has my thanks for his work in ridding us of the Craddick menace. His district is not competitive, so while I hope a good Democratic candidate will run, it’s highly unlikely this seat will be on anyone’s electoral radar after the primary. My best wishes to Rep. McCall in his retirement. BOR has more.

TPJ files complaint with Ethics Commission against Craddick

Texans for Public Justice has filed a complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission against former Speaker Tom Craddick, alleging that he obfuscated campaign donations made to several Democratic supporters of his prior to the 2008 primaries. From their press release (PDF):

Jobs PAC reported that it received $250,000 from Tom Craddick’s campaign committee on January 10, 2008. According to news reports, around that time Craddick campaign employee Christi Craddick also provided Texas Jobs with written instructions to distribute the funds to Democratic Reps. Kevin Bailey, Dawnna Dukes, Kino Flores and Aaron Pena.1 All four incumbents previously supported Republican Speaker Craddick and faced challengers in the 2008 Democratic primary.2 According to its own reports, Jobs PAC wrote three checks of $50,000 apiece to the campaigns of Reps. Bailey, Flores and Pena on January 11, 2008. By its own accounting, at the time Texas Jobs wrote these checks its sole source of funding was the $250,000 that it received the day before from the Craddick campaign. Rep. Dukes, the fourth lawmaker, told the Austin American-Statesman that she rejected an offer to receive $50,000 from Texas Jobs because her opponent already was making her Craddick ties a campaign issue.3

“Tom Craddick wanted to move tens of thousands of dollars to his favorite Democrats without letting voters know,” said Texans for Public Justice Director Craig McDonald. “Hiding the true source of campaign funds is illegal. Craddick could have contributed the money directly and openly. Instead, he used Texas Jobs to launder his money and keep Texans in dark.”

The TPJ filed a criminal complaint with the Travis County Attorney’s office last year when this information first came out. I am not aware of any updates to this case, but I suspect that it went nowhere, else there’d be little reason to take things up with the TEC. We’ll see what happens. More on this can be found here and here.

Kino Flores not running for re-election

The March primary season just got a little more interesting.

Embattled state Rep. Ismael “Kino” Flores announced Tuesday that he will not seek re-election to an eighth term in 2010.

Citing recent indictments handed down against him, the legislator said in a statement that he must concentrate on clearing his name and spending time with his family.

“I worked effectively, fought hard and delivered for South Texas,” he said. “I will not apologize for standing up for our region.”

In July, a Travis County grand jury charged Flores with 16 counts of tampering with government documents and three counts of perjury, alleging he hid more than $847,000 in personal assets from the Texas Ethics Commission over a period of six years.

I blogged about that here. Hard to know how much effect that had on his decision to step down, but it’s hard to imagine it had no effect.

The lawmaker’s announcement Tuesday now opens up the race for Texas House District 36 to a new candidate. Former teacher and probation officer Sandra Rodriguez, who gave the representative one of his closest challenges, during the 2007 Democratic primary has already announced her intention to run for the office again.

Several western Hidalgo County political operatives have also mentioned attorney Sergio Muñoz Jr. – son of former state Rep. Sergio Muñoz Sr. – as another possible candidate.

Flores, who won election in 1996 by defeating the elder Muñoz, became a polarizing figure among his constituents and colleagues during his 12 years in office.

Flores was of course a Craddick D, which is a big part of the reason why he wasn’t so well-liked in other parts of the state. That’s thankfully much less of an issue now than it used to be, but forgiveness and forgetfulness don’t always come easily. I don’t know much about the folks who are or may be running next year, but I’ll be very interested to see who lines up behind whom. A (long) press release from Rep. Flores is beneath the fold. Burka and BOR have more.

(more…)

Edwards gets a primary challenger in HD146

For the third straight election cycle, there will be a contested Democratic primary in HD146. Harvey Kronberg reports.

Billy Briscoe, who served as Paul Hobby’s travel aide during his campaign for Comptroller in 1998, says that he is running in the Democratic primary.

Briscoe worked for Public Strategies after leaving the Hobby campaign, representing telecomm and electric utility clients from 1999 to 2002. He currently is a partner at The Briscoe Law Firm, which he described as a boutique law firm providing help with business litigation and commercial transactions as well as lobbying services and strategic communications. The firm has offices in Houston, Austin and Dallas, he said.

He serves on both the Harris County Improvement District 12 and on Houston’s Affirmative Action Contract Compliance Commission.

Briscoe, 36, said that it’s time for people from his age group “to step forward and put forth new ideas.” He said that after thinking about his range of experience working in Austin, it only seemed natural for him to seek service in the Capitol.

He said he recognized the challenge in running against Edwards who is nothing short of an institution in his district. He said, though, that the key would be hard work. “If I don’t knock on several thousand doors,” he said, “on March 2, I won’t have a good night.”

He said that was placing a priority on improving the responsiveness of the district office to constituent needs. He said he didn’t mean that as an indictment of Edwards’ representation but he added that district residents have given him the sense that “we’ve missed responsiveness from our state representative.”

He added that he also planned to run on quality of life issues, such as jobs, economic development, good schools and improved social services.

The generational argument is an interesting one. I feel like it would have worked better last year, with Barack Obama on the ticket. Of course, Edwards waltzed to an easy victory over Borris Miles then, reclaiming the seat he’d lost in 2006, but I daresay that was more a referendum on Miles and his unfortunate self-destruction. Edwards is much less a polarizing figure now than he was when Miles defeated him in 2006, thanks to Tom Craddick’s defenestration. Given that the Speaker isn’t an issue, and that it’s now been four years since the infamous Sexy Cheerleading bill, I think the “time for a new generation of leadership” argument is as good as any. If Briscoe makes good on his plan to knock on all those doors, he’ll have a shot at it.

More legislative primaries

Freshman State Rep. Tara Rios Ybarra, who knocked off veteran Rep. Juan Escobar in the 2008 Democratic primary, will have a primary opponent of her own.

Kingsville businessman J.M. Lozano, aged 29, announced via a video on Facebook and You Tube that he has a “passion and burning desire in my heart to bring South Texas what it deserves.”

Click here to view the You Tube commentary.

Lozano is the owner of a restaurant franchise. He has a Bachelors degree in Government from the University of Texas at Austin and a Masters degree in Administration from the University of Incarnate Word in San Antonio. He has previously served in Congressman Rubén Hinojosa’s office in the Rio Grande Valley.

“I am proud to have been born and raised in rural South Texas. South Texas gave me a good education, strong family values, honesty, and integrity. It showed me to cherish the simple things in life and to remain grounded in reality. South Texas gave me my voice but my voice will always belong to South Texas,” Lozano said, in his commentary on You Tube.

Rios Ybarra, D-South Padre Island, won election in 2008, defeating incumbent Rep. Juan Escobar of Kingsville in the Democratic primary and token opposition in the general election. Lozano is expected to receive the endorsement of Escobar.

[…]

In his interview with the Guardian, Lozano said he is a “moderate” and “fiscally conservative” Democrat. However, he said that as someone who was born and raised in rural South Texas, he knows the region needs investment because it can no longer rely just on oil and gas. “You need to know your community and its needs, whether it has a population of 5,000 or 500 and I do,” Lozano said.

Asked if he was concerned that the Austin lobby money would likely flow to the incumbent, Lozano said, no. “Her money is largely from Republicans and she is beholden to Republicans. For her to hijack a party label and to tell people she is a Democrat, that is misleading,” Lozano said.

I supported Escobar and opposed Ybarra in 2008 because it was widely presumed that Ybarra had the backing of Tom Craddick. As things happened, that wound up being a moot point. I don’t know enough about how Ybarra did in her first session, or about Lozano, to have an opinion at this point, though I’m glad that any Speaker-related issues will have to do with whether or not the Dems get a majority, and not with the disposition of Tom Craddick. Link via BOR.

Meanwhile, Republican Rep. Betty Brown will have her hands full as well. Vince quotes from Capitol Inside and Quorum Report with various names, and notes that the Asian Political Leadership Fund is considering going all in to defeat Brown; they have a TV commercial ready to air already. They haven’t decided whether to aim for the primary or the general yet; the primary is likely the better bet as Brown’s HD4 is pretty solidly red, but perhaps a strong Democrat can mount a serious challenge if he or she has enough resources.

UPDATE: Burka has more on Lozano and Rios Ybarra.

Berman not running for Governor

That’s too bad, because it means the Republican primary won’t be as mean, nasty, and bats-in-the-belfry crazy as it could have been. But while Leo Berman won’t be in the race, Bermanism will be.

Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, strolled into the University of Texas at Tyler’s Ornelas Activity Center and were welcomed by a standing ovation from more than 120 attendees at an impromptu endorsement swap.

Berman, who had been positioning himself for a run at the governor position, officially dropped his name from possible contention for the Republican primary in March and followed it by endorsing Perry’s candidacy. He did, however, announce his intent to run for a seventh term as District 6 state representative.

Perry publicly agreed to pursue to continue Berman’s four platform items on which he would run for governor, including: assertion of state’s rights under the 10th amendment, challenging the federal government’s regulation of intrastate commerce, ordering all state agencies to remove illegal residents from state benefit programs and allowing the training of state law enforcement officers to legally enforce immigration laws.

In other words, Perry bowed to Berman. The State Rep dictated the terms to the Governor. Way to show him who’s in charge here, Rick!

Perry agreed that continued diligence on the border is needed but pointed out the need for the problem, which has cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars, to be addressed federally as well. The governor did express, much to the crowd’s approval, his opinion that continued assertion of state’s rights will be needed to maintain Texas’ position as one of just six states in the nation not in dire financial crisis.

That and about $15 billion in federal stimulus funds, which saved us from the same kinds of deep cuts that so many other states are making. Not that any of these guys would ever admit that.

Berman was elected in 1998, unseating four-term incumbent Ted Kamel, whom he blasted for not adhering to a promise to serve only four terms. During the campaign, Berman promised voters he would serve only four terms.

Prior to announcing his run in 2006 for his fourth term, Berman asked voters to allow him out of his term limits promise. He said he had learned that effectiveness in the Legislature is largely based on seniority. And following his re-election, he was appointed to his first committee chairmanship, heading the House Elections Committee.

At which he was a dismal failure, and as a charter member of the We’re Going Down With The USS Craddick club, he was relegated to the irrelevancy that he deserves and to which in a just world he will become accustomed. But hey, who’s counting?

Anyway. The Republican gubernatorial primary is now a three-way, with Perry, KBH, and Ron Paul disciple Debra Medina. With Berman in the mix, the potential for a screwy result, even the need for a runoff, was nontrivial. It’s still possible now, but distinctly less likely to my mind. All I can say is that I hope Perry dispatches Berman to speak on his behalf all over the state. He’s the true face of the GOP today.

Legislative wrapups

With sine die in the rearview mirror, tis the season for legislative wrapups. Here are a couple I’ve come across.

– First, from Bike Texas, which had the fairly easy task of just following one bill:

The final version of the Safe Passing Bill, SB 488, was passed yesterday [Saturday] by the Texas House. Today, the Senate voted on it, and overwhelmingly voted to pass it.

That was the final step for the bill to complete in the Legislature. Now, it will be sent to Governor Perry, and we are cautiously optimistic that he will sign it into law. We will know the outcome by June 21, the last day the Governor can sign or veto bills.

The 21st is a date that’s circled on a lot of people’s calendars. Next up is ACT Texas, which unfortunately had a lot less to be happy about.

How did the 81st Session go? After all the planning, meetings, hearings, email, office visits, phone calls, amendments, amendments to the amendment, how did things go for the ACT agenda this session?

The bottom line: we didn’t make the kind of progress on clean energy and clean air issues we had hoped to make. ACT bills faced two hurdles that could not be overcome this session. The first was strong industry opposition that both slowed the process (especially getting bills voted out of committee) and undermined the bipartisan support these measures had going into the session. The second was a legislative session that was behind from the beginning and ultimately derailed by a partisan stalemate in the House.

It’s important to note that bills did indeed pass that will continue to move Texas toward a cleaner, healthier future. Over the coming weeks, we’ll take a look at each of the 2009 issue areas in-depth and publish an assessment of how we fared on each. By the end of the month, ACT plans to publish a 2009 Legislative wrap-up.

Follow the link to see the specifics. The death of SB545, the solar bill, is in my mind the biggest disappointment.

Scott Henson had even less reason to be happy.

After all the fawning over Timothy Cole’s family and public declarations throughout the 81st Texas Legislature that the state would act to prevent false convictions, all the major innocence-related policy reforms proposed this year died in the session’s waning hours with the exception of one bill requiring corroboration for jailhouse informants.

Two other pieces of legislation for a brief moment had passed both chambers on Friday as amendments to HB 498, but after a 110-28 record vote approved the measure, Rep. Carl Isett moved to reconsider the bill and it was sent to a conference committee, where the amendments were stripped off for germaneness.

Sen. Rodney Ellis earlier in the day had requested the House appoint a conference committee and approve a resolution to “go outside the bounds” to consider eyewitness ID, but that resolution never came and instead the bill was denuded of all policy substance to become a bill to study whether to study the causes of false convictions.

We didn’t need more study by the Legislature on this issue, we needed action. Eyewitness ID errors make up 80% of DNA exoneration cases and the Court of Criminal Appeals’ Criminal Justice Integrity Unit said it should be the Legislature’s highest priority for preventing false convictions. But unless the issue is added to a call in a special session, at least two more years will pass before the Lege can begin to rectify the problem.

That’s inexcusable. It’s not okay for the Legislature to know that innocent people are being convicted under the statutes they’ve written and simply decline to prevent it.

The irony, as he notes later, is that by adopting HB1736, which increases the restitution made to exonerees, the state has ensured by its inaction that there will be more of them. So much for fiscal responsibility.

– On another single-issue matter, the saga of Gulf Energy, which got screwed over by the Texas Railroad Commission, won the right to sue the RRC to force it to clean up its mistake as SCR72 made it through on the last day. Good luck in court, y’all.

– And finally, a mixed bag from the Legislative Study Group, which I’m copying from email and reproducing beneath the fold.

All in all, the good news of this session is that there wasn’t much bad news – very few truly atrocious bills, the kind we were used to fighting off (usually unsuccessfully) in the Craddick days, made it to the floor, much less through the process. That’s part of what a lot of us hoped for with Joe Straus as Speaker, and up till the voter ID fiasco we got it. The bad news is that there wasn’t nearly enough good news, especially when you consider the number of good bills that were needlessly snuffed at the end thanks to voter ID. I’m not sure which is worse after sine die, feeling like you’ve spent 140 days fighting off zombies, or feeling like a whole lot of potential slipped through your fingers. What I do know is that we need to do better next time, and the fight for that starts now.

(more…)

Lon Burnam

The Star Telegram has a nice profile of Rep. Lon Burnam of Fort Worth, who we all know was anti-Tom Craddick before it was cool. If he were a baseball or basketball player, you’d say he’s one of those guys who does things that don’t show up in the box score. Burnam doesn’t pass a lot of bills, but he works to kill those that need killing, and he helps provide a much-needed and otherwise often lacking liberal perspective on many issues. And his story for this session has not been fully written yet, as he has promised to bring his resolution to impeach Sharon Keller to the floor for a vote on a personal privilege motion. He has said that will happen before sine die, so it’s got to be coming soon.

Whatever Ricky wants

It’s too early to say how much of Rick Perry’s self-proclaimed agenda will get enacted this session, as much of it hinges on the budget reconciliation process as well as on legislation that hasn’t been taken up by one chamber or the other.

Some of his top goals were resupplying the Texas Enterprise Fund and the Emerging Technology Fund, which he uses to create jobs in Texas reward his cronies while making grandiose and unverifiable claims about job creation; changing the state business tax to exempt small companies with less than $1 million in revenue; and approving a voter identification law.

Lawmakers writing the two-year spending plan seemed willing to put money into Perry’s job creation funds, but whether he gets the approximately $500 million combined he wanted for the accounts is far from certain. Lawmakers want more oversight of how the funds’ money is spent. The House, in its version of the state budget, put restrictions on the enterprise fund money to try to force Perry to accept $555 million in federal stimulus money for unemployment benefits.

A House-Senate conference committee is working out a compromise budget plan, so several money items on Perry’s wish list won’t be known until that deal is finally struck.

An increase in the business tax exemption for companies from the current $300,000 to $1 million in revenue won approval in the House but has not made it through the Senate.

The Republican-backed voter identification bill, a highly charged political proposal that would require Texans to show additional ID at the ballot box beyond a voter registration card, won passage in the GOP-dominated Senate after grueling testimony and debate. Odds for the bill are slimmer in the House, where the partisan makeup is almost even.

I made a slight edit to that first paragraph to more accurately reflect the truth of the situation. I have no idea how any of this is going to play out. Recent history has shown that while the House in particular has been willing to take a slap at Perry here and there, in the end the Governor has won a lot more of these staredowns than he’s lost. On the other hand, he doesn’t have Tom Craddick twisting arms for him this time around, and with the miniscule Republican margin, he may just suffer a few setbacks. Bear in mind that as long as Speaker Straus continues the tradition of not voting on legislation, if Rep. Ed Kuempel remains on the sidelines any straight partisan vote will be a tie, on which legislation fails to pass. Voter ID in particular may not be passable now, if Dems stick together. Just whipping Republicans won’t be enough.

There’s another wild card in this, which the article doesn’t discuss, and that’s the possibility of a special session, which some people I’ve spoken to think is inevitable. Rep. Kuempel’s health could be a factor in that as well – if he’s at full strength, that bodes better for the chances of any legislation Perry would push in a special session. The advantage to calling a special session for Perry is that it gives him another 30 days to pander to his base, as well as the chance to pick up any agenda items that fall victim to the calendar. On the other hand, he can’t raise money during a special session, and there’s always the chance he’ll still fail to get stuff passed, thus providing ammunition to KBH. Again, it’s hard to say how this might play out, but the possibility is definitely there, and I’m a bit surprised the story didn’t bring it up.

Campaign finance bill passes the House

I’ve had plenty of harsh things to say about House Elections Committee Chair Todd Smith this session, but he’s always been one of the good guys on campaign finance reform.

Texas could start regulating how political parties use corporate and union campaign contributions under a bill the Texas House passed Friday 71 to 63.

House Bill 2511 would close what author Rep. Todd Smith, R-Euless, has called an “absurd” loophole that enables corporations and labor unions to escape a century-old ban against political donations by funding issue ads that stop short of urging a vote for or against a candidate.

Under the bill, donations from corporations and unions could only go toward a political party’s or political action committee’s administrative costs.

You may recall that a broad definition of just what “administrative costs” are was a key part of the fight over what TAB and TRMPAC did in the 2002 elections, as they had claimed things like polling were “administrative” in nature.

The Texas Pastor Council sent an email blast urging a vote against the bill.

“HB 2511 will censor free speech and drastically change how nonprofit organizations communicate with their supporters about important policy issues,” the group wrote. “This very email could be ruled illegal under this proposed law, prohibiting nonprofits from highlighting elected officials and their bad votes on legislation affecting all Texans.”

Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, said he head received a letter from a host of conservative groups including Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, Texas Eagle Forum and the Texas Alliance for Life that were worried about the bill.

“They are concerned that this will limit their ability to come out and talk about issues,” King said.

If all those folks are against this bill, it must be doing something right. Though HB2511 only got 71 votes to pass, six of them were Republicans – Delwin Jones, Charlie Geren, Will Hartnett, Brian McCall, Tommy Merritt, and Smith; the latter three were coauthors of the bill, along with Rafael Anchia and Mark Strama. Still, I suspect that this won’t make it through the Senate; that two-thirds rule that ol’ Dan Patrick hates so much will surely see to its demise. A previous version of this bill died a messy death in the 2005 Lege amid allegations of partisan sniping at then-Speaker Tom Craddick. I like how now-former Rep. Terry Keel basically tells Tommy Merritt he’ll never eat lunch in this town again in the aftermath of that. Karma sure is a strange thing sometimes.

UPDATE: Burka figures out the reason for the partisan split on this one.

School finance bill advances

Has there ever been a legislative session that didn’t deal with school finance? This Lege is dealing with it as well, and the good news is they may have made some actual progress.

Texas teachers would get an $800-a-year raise and the Dallas school district would be protected from becoming a “Robin Hood” district for several years under a school finance bill that the House tentatively approved on Monday.

The measure also would merge the state’s two teacher incentive pay plans into one program and sharply reduce the amount of the merit pay that would have to be awarded based on student test scores.

Total state funding would increase about $1.9 billion over the next two years, with school districts required to spend at least half of their new state money on teacher salaries. The Dallas school district would see its funding rise $100 per student – just under 2 percent – for a total increase of about $17.5 billion.

School districts had sought more funding, but state leaders said earlier this year that a slowdown in state revenue would prevent a sizable increase.

“Every one of our school districts needs more money,” said Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, who laid out the school funding bill to the chamber. But even with the small increase, he added, “this is a fair bill and it is a balanced bill.”

One significant change in the bill would raise the threshold for determining which school districts must share their property tax revenue under the Robin Hood provisions of the school finance system. Last year, those districts were required to give up more than $1 billion to help equalize funding across the state.

Two of the biggest beneficiaries are the Dallas and Houston school districts, which are expected to join the ranks of high-property-wealth districts that must share their tax revenue next year. Under the House bill, both would be protected from becoming share-the-wealth districts for several years.

The bill is HB3646, and as of this afternoon it has passed the House, on a 144-2 vote. One additional benefit as noted in this AP story is that the plan is based on a calculation of current average statewide property values, so increases are reflected immediately. This isn’t perfect, but as House Public Education Chair Rob Eissler said in the Express News, it buys some time for the Lege to do more when the budget is in better shape. And this is surely a better deal than the schools would have gotten if Tom Craddick were still in charge. So we take what we can get and go from there.

Happy Ardmore Day

Rep. Pena remembers the day six years ago when the House Democrats took a stand against the DeLay/Craddick/Perry re-redistricting scheme. Though they were only able to delay the inevitable, the effort marked the beginning of the resurgence of the Texas Democratic Party, which had fallen pretty far down after the 2002 election. And while there aren’t any covert bus trips on the agenda this year, the delegation is once again faced with a partisan power grab, this time voter ID, in the waning days of the session. Thanks to the larger Democratic caucus that resulted in part from the redistricting fight, and the fact that a couple of Republicans aren’t on board with it, that bill isn’t guaranteed to pass. We can all hope for a different outcome.

This Observer story from the June 6, 2003 issue, which I reread every now and then, is still the best take on what happened back then, and a nice dose of nostalgia to boot. It’s interesting and occasionally amusing to recall the projections of what might happen were the DeLay plan to pass. The line about how “the new map, if passed, would ensure Republican control of Congress for decades to come” used to make me wince but now makes me chuckle. That was sure how it felt at the time, for both sides, but boy, the future sure ain’t what it used to be. Good thing, too.

The Speaker speaks, and a Voter ID update

So how is Speaker Joe Straus doing?

Three months into his first term leading the 150-member chamber, Republican Speaker Joe Straus is emerging as a bipartisan compromise-seeker, rejecting much of the power that his predecessor so coveted.

Straus still faces some tough tests, but just four years after Craddick was anointed as the most powerful Texan by Texas Monthly magazine, observers say the young GOP leader has shifted power back to the House.

“Not some, probably all,” said Rep. Tommy Merritt, a Longview Republican when asked if the speaker has given up some of the office’s power. “He’s doing exactly what a good speaker should do. He’s wielding the gavel and trying to make fair rulings to make the will of the House work for Texas.”

Straus’ first big victory came last week when the normally raucous House unanimously approved the $178 billion budget. It was the first time in a decade that the usually thorny state budget came out with 149-0 approval.

In a rare sit-down, on-the-record interview with The Associated Press, Straus said the unanimous vote was the result of weeks of negotiations and compromise.

“No one, right or left, Republican or Democrat, urban or rural, is going to crush somebody by sheer force this session,” said Straus, the state’s first Jewish speaker.

I’d say that’s a fair interpretation. As I’ve said before, Straus hasn’t been exactly what I’d hoped for in a non-Tom Craddick Speaker, but he’s still a lot better than Tom Craddick. The House has been remarkably free of strife, and more importantly it’s been completely free of attempts by the Speaker to impose his will on everything in his path. That’s as much a function of the near-even split as anything else, but the point is that Craddick couldn’t have managed under those conditions; he would have been what he has always been. The House would have been a disaster area with him in charge.

Of course, there’s still a lot of time left, and at least one big stinking partisan blob of an “issue” that remains unresolved.

Lately, Straus has been working to forge a compromise on an effort to strengthen voter identification requirements, a measure so divisive it sparked partisan meltdown in the Senate and triggered threats of lawsuits.

The legislation is expected to be debated by the House within the next couple of weeks. But by many accounts, a House compromise is on the horizon. Unlike the Senate, Straus said, the House wasn’t going to “pull the pin on the grenade and be irresponsible, which I think they were.”

“They just didn’t care about the consequences of the emotional side of it,” he said. “And we’re trying to be deliberate and slow … we’re trying to find solutions, not just talking points for somebody’s political agenda.”

Rep. Aaron Pena writes that voter ID could be on the agenda for the Elections Committee as early as tomorrow, with some kind of compromise voter ID bill to be debated. That’s assuming that the whole thing doesn’t get blown up by the Republican hardcore, as documented by Gardner Selby:

I’m hearing from Capitol sources that Rep. Todd Smith, R-Euless, privately told GOP colleagues today he’d reached closure on his intended-to-be-a-compromise version of voter ID legislation and might even issue an afternoon press release saying so.

To which, some Republicans reportedly reacted: “Whoa, Nelly (or Toddy).”

Their beef: They’d prefer not to see Smith, chairman of the House Committee on Elections, running out a softened-up approach that they don’t think meets the intended ID mandate.

True, it’d be a painful political boomerang for Republicans to see House Democrats (on the short end of the 76-74 House split between the parties) wrest control of the GOP’s most-valued legislative proposal (though the flip side, perhaps fueling Smith’s hunt for common ground, is that if the Senate-approved version of voter ID isn’t tweaked, he could fall short of getting the proposal out of his committee or off the House floor; tough cookies).

Until Smith speaks out (yup, I’ve tried to reach him), I’m left with separate statements from Rep. Betty Brown, R-Terrell, who takes a hard line on the voter ID front, and from 51 House Republicans (including Brown) similarly saying they’re not interested in phasing in changes or making it easier for most anyone to vote without presenting proof of their identity.

GOP blow-up? I’m waiting to hear more.

For what it’s worth, Rep. Smith says it was all sweetness and light when he addressed the caucus about his bill. Sure it was. I can’t think of a better resolution to this mess than a GOP implosion as no bill gets passed because the hardliners refuse to accept a compromise, while their version fails to get enough votes. Nothing could illustrate the point that this is all just a naked partisan power grab than that. Form a circle, Republicans, and load up those AK-47s! We’ll start popping the popcorn now.

House passes budget, slaps Perry

State Rep. Chris Turner, on Twitter:

At 3:56 am, the House unanimously passed the budget.

Believe it or not, that was earlier than was originally anticipated. The pregame chatter was that the House would have to reconvene today to finish the job, given the vast number of amendments that needed to be slogged through. It helped that the debate was largely civil, with many contentious amendments, the kind that get inserted to force record votes for future campaign fodder, got withdrawn.

“The real story tonight is that we all worked together, arm in arm, to pass a budget that we can all be proud of. We have shown that working together, we can do what is right for Texas and for Texans,” said Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie.

The mostly sedate debate – there was a random “bring it on!” when one lawmaker questioned another’s amendment – ran the gamut of sometimes hot-button subjects while intentionally steering clear of a couple of sensitive issues.

House members voted to ban public funding for private school vouchers, bar the Texas Department of Transportation from hiring lobbyists, pay for rail relocation to pave the way for a high-speed passenger train from San Antonio to Dallas under an amendment by Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, and change teacher incentive funding to give local school districts more control under an amendment by Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio.

The Republican governor would see losses on two fronts under the proposal approved at 4 a.m.

The measure would drain most of the operating funds for Perry’s office, instead using it to pay for community mental health crisis services and veterans’ services under amendments by Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, and John Davis, R-Houston.

In addition, if Gov. Rick Perry carries through on his vow to block some $555 million in stimulus funds for unemployment benefits, he would lose the $136 million in the Enterprise Fund.

That budget amendment by Reps. Armando Walle, D-Houston, and Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas, would transfer the money to the unemployment trust fund that pays benefits to workers.

“He (Perry) is having a bad day,” said Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco. “He might have to secede.”

But an effort to slash funding for Planned Parenthood was dropped, and lawmakers also decided to forgo consideration of a ban on embryonic stem cell research.

I’ll expand on some of these points in a minute, but first let me say that this, finally, was the kind of thing I had envisioned when Joe Straus was gaining momentum to knock off Tom Craddick as Speaker. The budget debate was substantive, it focused on real issues and not ideological talking points, and in the end it was passed unanimously. Does anyone think that would have happened if Craddick were still running the show? I sure don’t. Straus hasn’t been the end of the rainbow by any means, but he gets a ton of credit for this.

Now then. As fun as it is to contemplate a penniless Governor’s office – perhaps its functions can be privatized; I hear Accenture is looking for a new gig – that was just a bit of a shell game that will ultimately be rectified. Of much greater importance, and much more likely to have a real effect, was the amendment to zero out the Enterprise Fund.

Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer proposed an amendment that would keep Texas companies from receiving money from the Enterprise Fund and the Emerging Technology Fund if they’d already been bailed out by the feds. (Withdrawn.) Rep. Marisa Marquez tried to keep Perry’s funds from bailing out corporations that laid people off while paying bonuses to executives. (Also withdrawn) And Rep. Joe Moody wanted to prohibit cash flow from Perry’s funds to companies that contributed to his, Dewhurst’s or Straus’ campaigns. Debbie Riddle killed that bit of fun with a point of order. (She’s good at that.)

Then, Rep. Armando Walle wanted to nix the $136 million appropriation for the Enterprise Fund in the 2010-11 biennium if none of the unemployment insurance bills pass. The idea here is that if the unemployment insurance bills don’t pass, then Texas won’t get the $555 million for the unemployment trust fund, which Perry rejected last month. And the Enterprise Fund siphons money from the trust fund. So what Walle wanted to do with his amendment is say to Perry, “Veto the unemployment insurance bills, and we’ll zero out your slush fund.” But that amendment didn’t fly, either. Died on a point of order.

So far, Mark Strama has been the only one of the bunch to have any success. His amendment, which passed, says that the Emerging Tech Fund should prioritize funding for energy-related R & D projects.

But stay tuned. Yvonne Davis’ amendment, which would completely eliminate funding for Perry’s Enterprise Fund, was temporarily withdrawn, but seems like it might have some success.

And in the end, Rep. Davis’ amendment was accepted. I’m not exactly sure how it differed from Rep. Walle’s amendment, but the bottom line is that as things stand now, if Perry vetoes SB1569, whose prospects for passing the House look better to me now, then he nixes his own slush fund. You gotta love that.

Other matters of interest: School vouchers go down again. Teacher incentive pay gets an overhaul. Various petty amendments bite the dust amid general good will and the liberal use of points of order.

The floor fights have been few and far between. We hear that House members on the left and right have struck a truce and agreed to pull down their most controversial budget amendments.

That includes Panhandle Republican Warren Chisum’s proposal to de-fund Planned Parenthood. Chisum’s amendment had family family planning providers worried. But the amendment never came up.

Leo Berman, the Tyler Republican, did bring forth two amendments aimed at illegal immigrants. One would have instructed state health officials not to issue birth certificates to children of illegal immigrants (who, under current law, are U.S. citizens). Berman also tried to tax money transfers sent from Texas back to Mexico, and Central and South America. Both of Berman’s amendments were shot down on points of order because they changed state law, which isn’t allowed during the budget debated.

All in all, it was a pretty good day. There were some more goodies and the requisite amount of silliness, as one would expect for an 18-hour marathon. I recommend you read Vince’s exhaustive liveblogging to get a feel for that. In the meantime, the budget now goes to the conference committee so that the differences between the House and Senate versions can be ironed out. Burka things the Senate has the advantage in that, so who knows how much of what the House did will ultimately survive. All I know is that having seen the budget process under Tom Craddick three times, this was a vast improvement.

UPDATE: From Texas Impact:

Among the most important improvements the House made on the floor were:

They call the House budget “a significant improvement over the Senate budget”. Let’s hope we can say the same after the conference committee. Link via EoW.

Ethics and finance bills to get their turn

One never really expects bills relating to ethics and campaign finance reform to make it through the process, but it’s still a good idea to keep an eye on them.

In the last session, for example, at least 105 bills related to general ethics, lobbying or campaign-finance were filed. Only nineteen became law.

This session, members of the House and Senate again are considering more than 100 bills.

Among them are bills that would places caps on individual campaign donations to candidates, prohibit former lawmakers from immediately becoming lobbyists and prevent campaign payments to relatives.

Another bill, filed by Charlie Geren, R-River Oaks, would make lawmakers who run afoul of the ethics rules pay fines to the Texas Ethics Commission with personal funds, rather than with campaign donations.

“It makes a bigger impression on you if you write your own check rather than out of campaign dollars,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense to me to fine me $500, or $50,000, and I can just go down the hall, raise it and pay it.”

Geren said some of his colleagues strongly objected to his bill. Among the other bills that could face challenges is a measure that would explicitly prohibit any payments of campaign funds to relatives.

The bill, by state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, is a reaction to recent ethics findings against lawmakers who, for example, hired their wives as campaign bookkeepers.

“We’re trying to make sure that campaign contributions are used in furtherance of another cause, and that it’s not a slush fund to pay members of your family,” she said.

Another bill would restrict the most prolific donors from giving more than $100,000 in total to all candidates during an election cycle.

Houston homebuilder Bob Perry, for example, has donated more than $2.1 million to elected officials from both parties since January 2008, according to campaign finance reports.

Geren’s bill is HB477, Thompson’s is HB3178. It’s hard to argue with Geren’s bill, since what he describes is generally what happens. I will say that TEC enforcement, such as it is, tends to be a bit capricious, and their guidelines are not nearly as concise as they should be; as such, I’m at least somewhat sympathetic to claims that this will be unfair to the members who aren’t as well-heeled as some of their colleagues. Still, I think the general principle is correct. As for Rep. Thompson’s bill, the poster child here is Christi Craddick (latter link is a PDF). Were it not for abuses like that, I wouldn’t care much about a bill like that, but if it weren’t for abuses like that such a bill likely wouldn’t exist in the first place.

The contributions limit bill is HB391, by Reps. Mike Villarreal and Mark Strama; both have introduced legislation like this in previous sessions. It’s something I’ve been calling for myself for some time now, so I’ll be rooting for it. As with the others, I don’t really expect it to get anywhere, but bills like these serve a useful purpose regardless. If nothing else, I look forward to hearing what the opponents have to say about it.

House passes veto override resolution

I’m a little surprised that this got taken up so (relatively) quickly, but not at all surprised that it passed.

The House today passed a measure that would allow Texas voters to decide whether to allow the Legislature to override gubernatorial vetoes in short sessions after regular legislative sessions.

The House voted 131 to 16 to approve a resolution by state Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston, that would put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot. The resolution now goes to the Senate.

Elkins said that although the Legislature has the authority to override a gubernatorial veto, legislators rarely get that opportunity because the session is typically over by the time the governor vetoes most bills.

“This will bring the power back to the people,” Elkins told his colleagues.

The House passed a similar measure in 2007, but it died in a Senate committee.

The measure is HJR29. All 16 No votes were Republicans, including former Speaker Tom Craddick. And yes, this was authored by Gary “What’s Medicaid?” Elkins. He was the author in 2007, too.

I don’t know if it’s due to April Fool’s Day or what, but apparently Burka has had a change of heart on this.

Is this a good idea? When this came up two years ago, I was opposed to the amendment. My reason was that Texas has a constitutionally weak governor, and this proposal would further weaken the governor. Rick Perry, however, has changed the nature of the governor’s office. His lengthy tenure has allowed him to appoint all of the officials who oversee the executive agencies. He is a very strong governor, at least in his ability to control the actions of the executive branch through what amounts to a de facto cabinet form of government. This amendment is needed to restore a balance of power. For example, the Legislature, which controls the purse strings, can pass a statute making Texas eligible for stimulus funds for unemployment insurance, but the governor can veto the statute.

I was ambivalent about this in 2007, and I think I’ve come to Burka’s viewpoint now. The way things work, the Lege’s veto power is more a theoretical one than a real one; as the Observer notes, the last actual veto override was in 1979. So yeah, I do think this would restore some balance, and as such if it does make it through to the November ballot, I’ll vote for it.

That’s assuming it gets that far, of course. Burka thinks the Senate version of this measure, SJR14 by Wentworth, will never come to a vote because Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst won’t allow it. It hasn’t been scheduled for a committee hearing yet, so who knows. RG Ratcliffe has more.

Is redistricting reform about to become a reality?

Patricia Kilday Hart reports that Sen. Jeff Wentworth’s redistricting commission bill has a chance this session, thanks to the change in Speaker.

Wentworth, who presented his bill to the Senate State Affairs Committee, tells me he has confirmed pledges from six of nine Senate committee members to vote for his plan to turn congressional redistricting over to an independent commission. He gave a compelling — if lengthy — argument at State Affairs today for a new congressional redistricting mechanism, noting that lawmakers of both parties have been guilty of overreaching, vengeful actions that lead inexorably to expensive court appeals every decade.

He’s optimistic about his chances in the House, since it died there last session since “Craddick personally killed it.” Here’s the story: Wentworth had pledges from more than a majority of the House committee, but chairman Joe Crabb told him Craddick had instructed him to sit on the bill. Wentworth then collected signatures form 20 House chairman in support of his bill, but Craddick wouldn’t relent. Why? Wentworth says Craddick instructed him to go read ”Craddick vs. Smith” — a 30-year-old lawsuit over Craddick’s mistreatment during redistricting at the hands of Democrats. (Wentworth’s bill doesn’t touch legislative redistricting, but oh well, ….)

Could Texas really go a less bloody form of congressional redistricting? There were two opponents at Monday’s hearing — the executive director of the Republican Party of Texas, and a witness purporting to represent the Republican County Chairman’s Association (turns out his group hadn’t actually taken an official position on the bill.) Still, things are looking up for Wentworth: Joe Straus was one of the signatures on his letter supporting the bill last session.

Wentworth also claims that Gov. Rick Perry “wants to sign this bill.”

The bill in question is SB315. On the one hand, if this is ever going to happen, this session seems like the time for it – there’s some balance between the parties in the Lege, the GOP can see that they’re in trouble longer term and may want to do what the Dems probably wish they did back in the early 90s. On the other hand, this strikes me as the sort of thing politicians may want to give lip service to but not actually act on; both sides may hear it from their respective bases, as each may have reason to fear they’ll lose ground under this kind of arrangement. That last sentence from Hart’s report gives me pause, I’ll admit. But we’ll see. This ought to make for some interesting public hearings, if nothing else.

Son of Speaker complaining

So yes, even in the post-Craddick era, there are still complaints about the Speaker by Democrats. Some of this is to be expected: You can’t satisfy everyone. Some of it is probably the result of over-inflated expectations. And some of it is perfectly legitimate concerns about the makeup of the committees and who did or did not get good assignments.

I continue to believe that what we’ve got now is better than we had before, and better than we would have gotten from another term of Tom Craddick. I think Burka has a point in that the extremists who ruled committees under Craddick were largely shunted aside, and that the Dems mostly got their wish to be able to pass their bills and help their districts. Obviously, there is much to be played out, and we don’t really know yet if they’ll get a fair shake in the calendar and in rulings on points of order and whatnot. That’s where the rubber will really hit the road, and in the end I do think more real work will get done. At least, I think the potential is there for that. Of course, it’s quite possible for things to be better than they were under Craddick, and still not very good. When there’s that much room for improvement, there needs to be much improvement for it to be worthwhile. We won’t know about that till much later.

Process is only part of the equation, too. Will the emphasis this session be on the real work that needs to be done, on things like higher education and rebuilding Galveston and windstorm insurance and restoring CHIP and so on and so forth, or will Speaker Straus follow Craddick’s path of elevating divisive partisan issues over substance, and get things bogged down in the distractions of voter ID and abortion politics? Will we have an honest debate over the budget, or will Straus play games like Craddick and Warren Chisum did when they separated property tax cuts from everything else? Will members be free to vote their districts, or will they be pressured to do what the Speaker wants? It’s totally up to him, and when he has to make those decisions I hope he remembers how he got to be where he is now. More importantly, he might think about how Craddick got to be where he is now, too.

Craddick’s cleanup

I’m amused by this.

Before the House voted Speaker Tom Craddick out of his powerful job, state officials wiped his computers clean and deleted scores of electronic files, raising concerns that important public records may have been destroyed.

Files on one shared computer network drive were saved, but unless Craddick specifically requested them, computer hard drives and electronic records associated with individual employees were deleted, officials said.

Craddick left the speaker’s office on Jan. 13, returning to the state House as a rank-and-file member without a vast staff and without the sweeping power the presiding officer wields.

The computers were removed from the speaker’s office to be wiped clean at 5 p.m. on Jan. 12, said Anne Billingsley, spokeswoman for the Texas Legislative Council, which oversees computer issues for the Legislature. Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, was sworn in as speaker at noon the next day.

But before Craddick gave up the gavel to Straus, the council let Craddick take what he wanted and deleted everything else, officials said.

“Everything that Speaker Craddick had on his computers as far as data and records, he was allowed to take with him into his (state representative’s) office,” Billingsley said. “As far as the computers go, they took all the computers for the speaker’s office and they got wiped.”

Deleting computer files is standard procedure, Craddick’s chief of staff Kate Huddleston said. But it’s not clear what files were deleted, setting off alarms among government watchdogs.

Fred Lewis, an independent government watchdog, called the deletions “outrageous.”

“If it’s on a state computer, it’s a state record. They’re not his records. They belong to the people of Texas,” Lewis said. “I think there should be an investigation on whether or not he illegally destroyed state records.”

My reaction upon seeing this was, is this really standard procedure? If the commenters on Burkablog are to be believed, apparently so. It would be standard in the business world, but then we don’t have open records laws to worry about. This followup story goes into more detail.

[The Texas Legislative Council] said it followed its regular procedures, which included computer “sanitization” guidelines that had been issued in 2003 and revised in 2007. The bottom line: only the legislators themselves — and in this case former speaker Craddick — get to decide what to keep and what not to keep.

“The legislator makes all decisions regarding their files,” the council said in an unsigned news release on the stationery of council director Milton Rister. “The council simply follows its operating procedures in reformatting the computers for use by other or new legislators.”

But state Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, said Rister should resign over the incident.

“I’m very concerned about records being destroyed the day before the election of a new speaker without anyone in the Legislature in charge of stopping it or preventing it,” Merritt said. “Milton Rister needs to resign.”

Council spokeswoman Araminta Everton declined to comment on Merritt’s request.

Meanwhile, state Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, said he was filing legislation to prevent such destruction in the future. He said his bill was designed to “preserve the public’s right to know about legislative information when a legislator leaves office.”

I think that’s a better approach. At the very least, there’s no reason why a backup of the computer can’t be done before the wipe is performed. As for Milton Rister, he’s been the subject of controversy since he was first named director of the TLC.

And of course, with Tom Craddick, if it’s not one thing, it’s another.

Even as fellow House members were wresting him from his leadership post, former House Speaker Tom Craddick directed state officials to renovate his cherished Capitol apartment, spending all but $18.55 from a restoration fund that once totaled over $1.3 million.

The final purchase order — $45,400 for two historic Texas oil paintings — was issued just hours before Craddick had to hand power over to Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, after House members voted him out of the No. 1 post because they didn’t like his autocratic leadership style. Straus got Craddick’s job as well as the keys to the 1,804-square-foot apartment behind the House chamber.

Private funds, donated from wealthy contributors and lobbyists, were used to pay for the renovation. State employees were also dispatched to perform minor installation work on the project late last year, officials said.

Craddick, a Midland oilman, announced he was withdrawing from the speaker’s race on Jan. 4, after it was clear he no longer had a majority of the House behind him. A day later, on Jan. 5, the Texas State Preservation Board approved the expenditure of $124,000 on the apartment, including the purchase of a $75,000 crystal chandelier that had already been hung over the speaker’s spacious dining room.

All told, the State Preservation Board — in charge of modifications to the state capitol — approved $169,400 in expenditures on the apartment renovation during Craddick’s final week in office. The last expenditure, for the oil paintings, was approved just before 5 p.m. on Jan. 12, only hours before the Republican speaker formally relinquished power, records show.

I have to admit, the man does have a certain flair.

House adopts rules

Once again, not much drama in the lower chamber.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

California breathin’

We may get some cleaner air to breathe here in Texas thanks to California and President Obama.

Obama ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to review the Bush administration’s refusal to allow California and 13 other states to set the nation’s toughest vehicle emissions standards.

During a ceremony in the White House East Room, Obama signed a directive requiring the agency immediately to review that December 2007 decision denying California permission to limit carbon dioxide emissions from cars and trucks.

“The federal government must work with, not against, states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Obama said.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who pushed unsuccessfully for tougher car emissions standards in the 2007 legislative session, says his measure may have a better chance this session now that one key obstacle — federal opposition — is likely to disappear.

“It’s an uphill battle to get the votes in the House and in the Senate,” Ellis acknowledged. “But on my side in the Senate, members who in the past were very reluctant to consider environmental legislation have gotten much more educated, as I’ve seen in private conversations.”

Ellis’ legislation would adopt all of California’s proposed emissions standards, as the 13 other states already have and several more are considering.

Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, has filed an identical bill in the House.

The bills in question are SB119 and HB776. I don’t know that this will give them a leg up, but it does at least knock down one objection to them. We know Speaker Straus is much more open to green legislation than Tom Craddick was. If Sen. Ellis’ assessment of his colleagues is accurate, then who knows?

Adopting the California standard in Texas would cost new-car buyers about $7 more per month if they financed a car over five years, Ellis said, but they would save up to $18 per month in fuel costs based on $1.74 per gallon of gas.

Many industry groups expressed opposition to the administration’s move.

The American Petroleum Institute said it “supports President Obama’s desire to fortify the nation’s energy security with a comprehensive energy policy” and said that since 2000 the oil and gas industry has invested $42 billion in “zero- and low-carbon” research and development. But the action contemplated in Monday’s announcement isn’t the best approach, the group said.

“Creating a patchwork regulatory structure across multiple states would most likely impose higher costs on consumers, slow economic growth and kill U.S. jobs,” the trading group said in a statement.

And carmakers have complained that developing vehicles that comply would cost billions of dollars.

But if the EPA agrees to California’s standards, Texas likely will be affected regardless of whether the Legislature approves Ellis’ measure. The 14 states that have adopted the tougher emissions standards represent more than half the nation’s population, so the practical effect of EPA approval of California’s rules would be to force automakers to raise fuel efficiency standards across their fleet.

Yeah, that would seem to be the obvious answer to the automakers’ complaint. I mean, nobody is forcing them to maintain two different standards. And let’s face it, when it comes to environmental matters, these guys are a bunch of weasels who generally need to be forced to do the right thing. So forgive me if I am unmoved by their argument.

The Speaker speaks

Evan Smith had a sit-down with new Speaker Joe Straus, which was broadcast Thursday on KLRU in Austin. You can watch the video of it at that link; it’s a little less than 30 minutes. Straus has made a good impression so far. Assuming there’s no shenanigans on committee assignments and there’s no Senate-like outbreak of voter ID madness, this may be a productive session.

For purposes of comparison, have a look at the interview Elise Hu conducted with former Speaker Tom Craddick. Like another formerly powerful Republican I can think of, apparently none of the bad things that happened on his watch were his fault. Funny how that goes.

Meanwhile, Burka has a look at the proposed new House rules, which should go a long way towards putting the Craddick era behind us, and Elise has a list of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s top priorities for the session, to which Eye on Williamson adds a few thoughts. Finally, this doesn’t have anything to do with the Lege, but I wanted to note that Governor Perry and local religious conservative Steven Hotze have kissed and made up. Do yourself a favor and scroll through the comments for an awesome assortment of creatively-spelled reactions from the type of voter Perry is trying to woo in 2010 with this reconciliation. It’s really…well, just go see for yourself.