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January 20th, 2011:

Williams will step down from the RRC

Michael Williams makes it official.

Texas Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams says he has sent Gov. Rick Perry a letter telling him he will be leaving the commission on April 2 to concentrate on a race for the U.S. Senate.

Williams described the campaign as a “long cycle and a long race” that will, perhaps, have as many as nine candidates vying for the seat being vacated by U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Williams said he thought he could do a better job of concentrating on the race as a private citizen than as an office-holder.

Also, he said by giving Perry such advance notice, it will allow the governor to consider whether to replace him on the commission. There is discussion in the Legislature with taking the three-member panel down to one commissioner or possibly combining it with other agencies.

I’m more interested in the fate of the RRC than I am with Williams’ campaign, which I daresay will be as unoriginal and undistinguished as all of the other contenders’, with the possible exception of Ron Paul. It’s not at all clear to me that a one-person RRC, or whatever it might be renamed to, would be any less corrupt or more accountable than what we have now. But at least it might mean fewer people biding their time while plotting to run for something else.

Senate retains 2/3 rule

The Senate will mostly operate as it did in 2009, retaining the traditional 2/3 rule and the exception for voter ID legislation.

Though there was still some heated discussion around the matter, which will likely continue as long as Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, is in office.

Though he lacked the votes to do away with the “2/3 rule,” Patrick still rose to express his opposition to its existence. He would prefer a simple majority or a compromise of a “3/5 rule” because the 2/3 rule is “inhibiting” the rule of the majority. “I don’t stand alone,” Patrick said. “I stand on the shoulders of our founding fathers.”

Interestingly, the first person to rise in support was Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, who famously stood against hs party when they passed the voter ID exemption last session. “I stand somewhat in contrast to my position two years ago,” he said. The reason: a flood of calls from constituents, he estimated between 150 and 200, supporting the rule.

In response, the longest-serving member, Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said, he was “disappointed” that, after two sessions, Patrick had not developed an appreciation for the rule, which he said “requires us to sit down and talk.” He cited an apocryphal story of Thomas Jefferson comparing the purpose of a senate to the same reason coffee is occasionally poured into a saucer before being consumed — to cool things down.

Minor tweaks were made to the rules dealing with the referral of local bills and allowing more time to consider budget changes proposed in conference committee. The Republicans all voted in favor of the rules, and Democrats — still opposed to the voter ID exception — voted against.

Congratulations to Robert Miller for calling this correctly. As I’ve said before, I’m not going to justify this either way. The various anti-majoritarian rules that exist here and in other bodies are great when you’re the one using them to stop something you don’t like, and they suck when the shoe is on the other foot. Admit it and deal with it, because it is what it is. The main reason why the Texas Senate 2/3 rule still allows that body to function in something resembling a workable fashion – i.e., completely unlike the US Senate – is because the minority party only uses it to stop stuff it really hates, and not as a de facto veto for every bill under the sun. There’s also no question that if Senate Dems got a bit too stroppy, David Dewhurst would get the blocker bill cleared off the calendar faster than you can say “I’m running for the Senate in 2012”.

Anyway. The one difference from before for the Senate was the adoption of a Kirk Watson amendment to allow for more time before voting on the budget.

The Texas Senate today approved a change in its rules to allow for a 48-hour period before the state budget can be voted upon, time for the public and lawmakers to understand what’s in it.

No such time delay exists now.

The vote was 18-11.

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, had proposed a five-day viewing period, but some senators argued that such a change would place the Senate at a disadvantage in negotiating a final version of the budget with the House that has no such delay in its rules.

Good for Sen. Watson for getting this done. I hope it helps.

Bye-bye, border fence

Long overdue.

The Obama administration on Friday canceled the long-troubled, high-tech invisible fence project along the U.S.-Mexico border, ending a five-year, $1 billion pilot program that President George W. Bush envisioned as stretching along most of the 1,969-mile border.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano briefed key members of Congress on the decision, which she telegraphed months ago by ordering a yearlong review of the project.

She said technology gleaned from the 53-mile project in Arizona will be used to continue developing a high-tech border security network that relies on agents from the U.S. Border Patrol, some 700 miles of pedestrian and vehicle fencing and aerial surveillance by unmanned drones.

“There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to meet our border technology needs, and this new strategy is tailored to the unique needs of each border region, providing faster deployment of technology, better coverage, and a more effective balance between cost and capability,” Napolitano said.

What is also long overdue is a comprehensive review of the effectiveness of current immigration policies, including enforcement efforts, to be followed by an actual bill to do the reform that everyone says they want. Everyone knows that the current system is broken. It’s way past time to fix it. And when that effort is inevitably met by fierce resistance from the xenophobic wing of the Republican Party, at least we’ll all know for sure who stands for what.

Insurance exchanges

This will be worth watching.

One of the GOP’s leading healthcare experts in the House – Rep. John Zerwas, R-Simonton – introduced a bill Thursday to create a health insurance exchange in Texas.

The exchanges, which are required in the federal health care reform legislation that was passed by the last Congress, provide a unified marketplace for consumers to compare and purchase health insurance from private providers.

“It’s the vehicle through which a lot of the expansion of insurance was intended to occur,” said Zerwas. “We wanted to get a bill in fairly early in the Legislative session so that the members could look at it, could be sure that what we’ve come up with will uniquely benefit Texas.”

He described the exchange system he’s proposed in the bill as a public-private partnership that is a compromise between the Massachusetts and Utah exchange models.

“We have combined elements of both in there,” he said. “It sort of builds on some of our experience, in terms of the management and oversight of the high risk pool that we have. We’ve taken pieces of things that seem to work well in Texas and moved them into what this exchange would be.”

Even though he was opposed to the federal legislation that mandated the creation of the exchanges, he thought the idea was a beneficial one for Texas.

“I think people just want to get comfortable that whether ‘Obamacare’ survives or not, or whether it just completely unwinds, if we create a health insurance exchange… that it would serve Texans well whether Obamacare was out there or not,” Zerwas said.

The bill in question appears to be HB636. Zerwas is a serious health policy person, unlike his clownish Fort Bend colleague Charlie Howard, so I have hope that the discussion about this will be informative. I don’t have a strong opinion about whether Texas should do its own exchange or should leave it to the feds – all things considered, I’d trust the feds more at this time, though it must be noted that the LBB recommendations said that the state should “create and run” them – but I’m glad to see someone with chops take a crack at it. And it must be noted, of course, that it took action by a Democratic President and a Democratic Congress to get Texas to finally maybe do something about this. All in all, a reasonably positive step.

Dallas Mayor Leppert officially not running for re-election

As expected.

Mayor Tom Leppert, a successful business executive who rose from political unknown to become one of Dallas’ most powerful mayors, has confirmed he will not seek re-election in May but will pursue “other ways to add value to our community, our region, our state and our nation.”

Leppert’s comments were the clearest signal yet that he is planning a run for U.S. Senate, something that has been rumored for months but that he has yet to announce.

In a lengthy interview reflecting on his time at City Hall, Leppert did not commit to serving out his full term as mayor, which ends in June. But he did not say when he might leave office.

He said he decided not to run for a second term because he feels he has accomplished much of what he set out to do.

“I feel like I’ve done the job. It wasn’t a question of time. It ought to be judged by the results you’ve accomplished, not how much time you’ve spent,” he said.

It’s way too early to start handicapping a field that has no official entrants of significance yet, and I’m probably not the right guy to do that, anyway. Still, I have a hard time seeing how a guy like Leppert can gain traction in this environment, where a record of accomplishment is seen as a negative. Heck, just overcoming the Poppy Bush endorsement of Roger Williams may be too high a hurdle to overcome. (Yes, I’m being facetious.) Regardless, if he really is running, look for the reinvention as a true-believing teabagger to begin any day now. Greg has more.

Texas blog roundup for the week of January 17

The Texas Progressive Alliance celebrates the MLK Day holiday as it brings you this week’s blog roundup.