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May, 2011:

House gavels in and out

That was quick.

The House gaveled in shortly after 10 a.m. today and adjourned about 10 minutes later after Speaker Joe Straus announced that he’ll have a better idea about the special session’s schedule when the body reconvenes at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

So far, only one bill has been filed in the House, and Straus said House and Senate leaders will be meeting to coordinate which bills will taken up first in the individual bodies.

“It will be more apparent tomorrow what our schedule is,” Straus said.

Several other bills have been filed in the Senate, including SB8, the health care compact bill that will likely be more sound and fury than anything else. Three bills are scheduled for committee hearings on Thursday.

A school district mandate relief bill is among the select few so far that will be considered during the special legislative session.

No text is available yet so it’s not clear which approach will carry the day: the limited and temporary Senate version, which did not include lifting the cap on class sizes; or far-reaching and permanent as House Public Education Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, has preferred.

Neither cleared its respective chamber, though the Senate proposal seemed to have some legs if it could have made it to the floor. The Democrats blocked it but that will not be an option this time around.

Another education bill, formerly known as House Bill 6, is also back. That one, which became a bit of an education free-for-all, didn’t get out of the House before the midnight deadline on Sunday.

Last but certainly not least is the school finance measure, which is still nestled among the budget-related tome that is the real reason we’ve all returned, now called Senate Bill 1. That bill frees up the revenue, mostly by deferring a school payment into the next budget, to pay for the $172 billion two-year budget.

Robert Miller thinks the filibuster by Sen. Wendy Davis at the end of the session was a strategic mistake on the grounds that the Republicans plan to pass their school-related bills before any further opposition can get organized. However, the House doesn’t expect to see any action till next week, which doesn’t sound particularly quick to me. We’ll see how it goes.

Veasey’s Congressional plan

We didn’t get a Congressional map from the Senate Redistricting Committee, though we may now get one in a special session but that didn’t stop State Rep. Marc Veasey from drawing his own before sine die.

In Veasey’s map, thirteen of the state’s 36 districts would be minority districts, all of which would lean Democrat, along with one in Travis County. The other 22 districts would lean Republican.

Veasey said he was using the “same logic” Republicans used in 2003 redistricting in arguing that 55 percent of the seats should favor Republicans because 55 percent of the state voted Republican at the time.

“A certain percentage of the population is African-American and Latino and a certain number of seats should be as well,” Veasey said.

Part of Veasey’s motivation in presenting his own map was to promote his approach to redistrict his home of southeast Fort Worth. The African-American community is still smarting from 2003 redistricting, when it was drawn into Denton County-based District 26, now held by U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville. In Veasey’s map, the community would be part of District 35, an African-American district which would also include southeast Arlington and southwest Dallas.

“I wanted to do this for folks in my district who felt they had been wronged last time,” Veasey said.

Veasey emphasized that his map still provides plenty of political opportunities for “the next young stable of leaders in the Republican Party” citing Anglo state representatives Kelly Hancock of Fort Worth, Ken Paxton of McKinney and Van Taylor of Plano.

“It doesn’t take away any opportunities from the Van Taylors and Kelly Hancocks or anyone like that who are future leaders in the Republican Party…Their communities that they represent still have more opportunities than Black and Latino,” Veasey said.

Of course, the Republicans drew a map that was intended to give them far more than 55% of the seats, but that’s neither here nor there. Veasey’s plan is Plan C121, so let’s look at some pictures.

Dallas and Tarrant Counties

According to Veasey’s press release, which is beneath the fold, CD34 is a “new, effective Latino Opportunity District” and CD35 is a “new, effective African American Opportunity District”. I would have to check to see if CD35 includes Rep. Veasey’s home precinct, but I’d be shocked if it didn’t.

South Texas

CD33 is “a new, effective Latino Opportunity District in South Texas.” No room here for Aaron Pena, that’s for sure. The interesting thing is that CD33 continues up into Bexar County, where it takes over a lot of the turf currently in CD23. CD23 in turn gets shifted to the east, while CD28 takes over the western portion of what had been CD23. Here’s a look at the new CD23 and the districts around it:

Central Texas

CD23 would be the “new” Central Texas district in this plan; it would clearly lean Democratic, as would CD27 in South Texas. Veasey’s plan gets to 14 Democratic seats, which by the way is only 39% of 36 total seats and thus still quite reasonable for the Republicans even if you think 2010 was a normal year, by adding those two currently R-held seats to the three new Democratic ones. The district that really interests me in this map is CD31. There’s a piece of Bell County in that district that I can’t quantify, but here are the Sam Houston numbers for the other counties from 2008:

County Wainwright Houston ============================ Blanco 2,951 1,490 Burnet 10,764 4,903 Hays 26,845 26,389 Williamson 81,458 61,782 Total 122,018 94,564

That’s a 56% Republican district, with the population centers of Williamson and Hays trending blue. That would be a district to watch.

Finally, the new Republican district:

Harris County and Southeast Texas

No new Latino district for Harris County, which as Greg notes stands in contrast to MALDEF’s vision. Basically, CD02 takes up more turf and shifts west. CD36 is an amalgam of territory from CDs 02, 08, 14, and 22 and would certainly be Republican. A piece of it is in Harris as well. CD10 becomes solid red as it sheds Travis County and becomes the fourth CD with a piece of Fort Bend. For comparison’s sake, here’s the same area as it is today:

Harris and its environs today

While this is all mostly an academic exercise, as Veasey’s map is hardly likely to get debated, there is a reason for this beyond showing what could be, and that’s showing a court what could be.

Sen. Kel Seliger said his redistricting committee ran out of time, but did produce a map that a federal judge could consider. The committee has not made the map public, and Seliger would not characterize what his map would do in terms of ethnic representation.

“We will take our product … and ask our state officers to present this product to the court as our answer to the legal proceeding,” Seliger said. The court “will get dozens and dozens of them and ours will be a good deal more credible than almost all of them.”

Fort Worth Rep. Marc Veasey, a Democrat on the House redistricting committee, also produced a map that will go before the court. He says his would create two Hispanic-opportunity districts and one African-American district.

“The dramatic growth of the Latino and African American population is the only reason Texas is receiving additional congressional seats, and any plan that fails to add at least three additional effective minority opportunity districts would violate the Voting Rights Act,” Veasey said.

The Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund also proposed an alternative map that produced two Hispanic opportunity districts, one along the border and the other in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Perhaps that mystery map is the one that he and Rep. Burt Solomons now claim to have agreed on. Why they couldn’t get it out in time remains a mystery, but whatever. As for MALDEF, they will argue for their map in court as well. We’ll just see how it plays out from here.


Get ready for the special session

Ready or not, here they come back. And with the start of the special session comes a little surprise.

Gov. Rick Perry and legislative leaders hope to move through a series of bills quickly during the special session that begins tomorrow, starting with the fiscal issues that forced the session and continuing on through other controversial legislation, including congressional redistricting, reforms to the state’s windstorm insurance program, and legislation loosening state mandates on public education, sources said Monday.

The governor has talked to legislative leaders about including several items in the special session, but not all at once. Instead, they’re talking about trying to pass legislation in series, moving quickly and adding items to the call as each item wins passage, according to sources.

Congressional maps “are ready to go tomorrow morning, if [Perry] wants them” said state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo. He wouldn’t discuss the specifics of the maps, but said that he and his redistricting counterpart in the House, Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, would start with identical maps.

If they have “identical” maps ready to go now, it makes you wonder how it is they didn’t have them a week ago, when overtime would not have been needed. The least surprising part of this is that the maps in question would be sprung on everyone without any advanced notice. If the Republicans could pass a map without any input from the public, they would. We’ll see what they have in mind.

As for the rest of the potential issues that may be added to the call, I would just point out that despite what some Republicans may want you to believe, whatever is on the agenda is up to Rick Perry. That’s true with the failure of SB1811, and it was true with windstorm insurance. Perry does whatever it is he wants to do, he doesn’t need to be goaded into anything. The Governor made “sanctuary cities” an emergency item. If it was that important to him, it was always within his power to force the issue. As for claims that the Republicans might somehow make school finance worse as payback, they’ll have to vote for whatever they produce, too. As Nate Blakeslee pointed out, several of them in the House voted against SB1811 the first time, enough to make its passage not a slam dunk. I suppose they could cut funding further, but it’s a little hard for me to believe that the Senate, which pushed so hard for more funding for schools, to the point of conjuring up all kinds of budgetary alchemy to make it look like there were more funds available than the House was otherwise willing to use, would throw that all away in a fit of pique. I guess we’ll find out.

I should note that the Democrats will try to play a little offense during the overtime period as well.

Mild-mannered Texas House member Elliott Naishtat, the VISTA worker from Queens who came to the Lone Star State and stayed, has a message for U.S. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, the Ayn Rand disciple who is steeling congressional Republicans’ spines for the hard job of taming the welfare state: We will bury you.

Naishtat, D-Austin (at right in May 11 AP photo), put state Republicans on notice Monday that he and other Texas Democrats soon will try to link the Legislature’s recent work on an interstate health care compact to a Medicare overhaul the U.S. House recently endorsed at the urging of Ryan, R-Wisc.

“Voters pay attention when you mess with their health care,” Naishtat said. “Last week, we all watched voters in a very conservative district in New York, my home state, elected a Democrat to the U.S. Congress.” Naishtat referred to Democrat Kathy Hochul’s special election upset victory in a U.S. House district, stretching from Buffalo to Rochester, that has been in Republican hands for four decades.

Will that resonate, or will it just distract from the message about what’s going on with school finance? I have no idea, but for sure there’s no lack of material. Dems will need to run with all of it between now and next November. How well they make their case will be what it’s all about. A letter from Lt. Gov. Dewhurst to Rick Perry about the special session is here, and you can see the official call here.

Texting while driving ban passed

Somehow, this managed to happen as everything else was going on at the end of the session.

The Senate voted for a statewide ban on texting while driving Wednesday night, as an amendment added to another bill.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, added the bill as an amendment to a bill that would allow retired peace officers to carry certain firearms. The measure will now go back to the House to accept the amendments.

According to the Trib, the bill that got amended was HB242. The House had passed its own bill to ban texting while driving back in April, but it never made it to the Senate floor. That bill was HB243, and like HB242 it was authored by Rep. Tom Craddick. After the Senate passed in on Wednesday, it went to a conference committee and was passed again by the Senate on Sunday, then passed by the House before everything went crazy over SB1811.

According to a press release from Sen. Zaffirini, which is reproduced beneath the fold, the text-banning amendment is based on her bill SB46, and “would prohibit a driver from reading, writing or sending a text-based communication while operating a motor vehicle, unless the vehicle is stopped. Voice-operated, hands-free and GPS devices would be exempt.” Assuming this does get signed, get ready to adjust your driving habits as needed.


The Mayor and the firefighters

Despite the tone of this, I wouldn’t make too much of it.

While looking for tens of millions of dollars through a combination of cuts, deferrals, savings and fee hikes, Mayor Annise Parker repeatedly has identified the Houston Fire Department as one of the largest of budget bogeymen.

Whether describing an intransigent pension board, a union rejecting attempts to reduce overtime or the department’s overspending, Parker frequently has criticized the representatives of men and women who generally enjoy a public image as heroes and lifesavers.

Last week, her ongoing public sparring with firefighters culminated in a series of statements that painted the union and pension board as impediments to solving the city’s budget problems. When announcing a deal with the union to defer termination pay to save 238 firefighters’ jobs in fiscal year 2012, she told the media that she had been “stood up” by the union president who had been expected to show and play nice for the cameras.

The next day, she announced a deal with the police pension board to defer $17 million in pension payments. She contrasted their cooperation with the firefighters’ pension board’s rejection — and “not very politely” — of a similar deal. Last Thursday, even as she gloated a bit about the labor deal she had struck with the firefighters just 10 minutes before she was to send out layoff notices, she lashed the department for busting its budget year after year.

She made a point of mentioning that the only person calling for a tax increase this year was firefighter union chief Jeff Caynon.

“The mayor’s administration has been hostile to firefighters from Day One,” Caynon said. “There’s no question that if you asked the average firefighter on the street, they would tell you that they think the mayor hates firefighters.”

Now, the mayor needs those firefighters to ratify the labor agreement. If they reject it, they blow a $12 million hole in her budget just as her $1.8 billion plan goes before City Council for adoption.

It’s true that the Mayor and the firefighters, who of course endorsed Gene Locke in 2009, don’t exactly see eye to eye. It’s just that it’s not particularly remarkable that this is the case. The story notes that Kathy Whitmire had a contentious relationship with the firefighters, but there’s still more than that. The firefighters endorsed Orlando Sanchez over Lee Brown in 2001, and while I don’t recall them butting heads with Bill White, they endorsed Rick Perry for Governor last year, so draw your own conclusions. Seems to me this is pretty much par for the course. As for the deal that the union will have to vote on, the question is simple: Do they think they can do better if they turn this one down? I have no idea. Everything else is a political calculation. Neil has more.

In your grill

I love the opening to this story about the people who call Weber Grills for tech support, and the people who take those calls.

Man. Meat. Fire.

It is supposed to be a foolproof formula. But the guy at the grill is frantic. He has a yard full of hungry guests, and he is fumbling to get the gas flaming properly. It is a Memorial Day weekend nightmare that calls into question the very essence of his suburban manhood. Furtively, he dials the Weber Grill hot line for help, and Janet Olsen is on the line.

“Quick, I need to talk to a man,” he says curtly.

For Ms. Olsen, 67, it was yet another caller insisting that no woman could possibly grasp a grilling issue.

With 14 years on the job, she calmly but firmly explains that she will be able to handle the problem. If the man is especially upset, she suggests, “You might want to grab a beer — and just listen for a while.”

At the Weber hot line center here, this is the busiest week of the year, as thousands of befuddled grillers (overwhelmingly male) are being rescued by a team of about 40 grilling experts (almost all of them women).

You can just see Todd Phillips or Judd Apatow basing a scene, if not an entire movie, on that premise, can’t you? Happy Memorial Day, everyone. May you not need to call your grill company’s tech support today.

Davis filibusters SB1811, special session looms for tomorrow

Hoo boy.

Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, filibustered for a little more than an hour Sunday night, probably killing a school finance and revenue bill critical to the budget (it’s still possible for a four-fifths supermajority of the Senate to pull it up for a vote today). And the House hit a midnight deadline without approving three major pieces of legislation — including one that’s designed to corral Medicaid costs and help balance the state budget.

Gov. Rick Perry had promised earlier in the day to call lawmakers back on Tuesday if the budget bills weren’t all approved. The regular session ends today, and it looks like the first special session will begin as early as tomorrow morning.

Even without an unfinished 2012-13 budget to bring them back, Gov. Perry had already set the table for a special legislative this summer.

• The governor, tort reformers, trial lawyers and lawmakers in the House and Senate couldn’t put together a fix to the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association in the 140-day legislative session, and Perry promised that if they didn’t get it done he’d call them back to Austin in July to finish up.

When they hit the deadline at midnight Saturday, they didn’t have anything except for the governor’s promise that they’ll be back.

• Lawmakers completed their work on new political maps for the State Board of Education and for the Legislature itself, but never even presented or held hearings on maps for congressional redistricting. Perry’s aides indicated for weeks that their boss would be unlikely to call lawmakers back for that purpose alone. Then, in the last days of the session, the governor told reporters he’d be willing to call a special session on congressional maps if House and Senate leaders can show him they’ve got enough votes to make it a quick deal.

Whether or not the governor is thinking about a presidential race, the memory of Senate Democrats running off to Albuquerque — as they did in the 2003 redistricting fight — has to make him wary of a session on that all by itself.

• Then there is the sanctuary cities legislation, one of six items the governor put on a list of legislative “emergencies” to speed consideration by the House and the Senate. That one didn’t make it out, and a special session could give him another shot at it.

On Sunday, they added to their troubles when the midnight bell tolled before the House had approved three bills that created interstate health compacts, contained Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s health reforms, provided funding for textbooks, and addressed efficiency in the Medicaid program. That last bill is one of several considered critical to the budget.

If the past is any guide, a special session that starts with one topic often picks up others along the way, and Perry could add other issues — new ones or things left undone during the regular session, small issues or large ones — as he goes along. Lawmakers will likely start with the budget bills on Tuesday, and if they can come up with negotiated solutions on others — redistricting, for instance — Perry might add those to the agenda.

When I went to bed last night, the failure to pass a windstorm bill was the only known reason for a special session, and it was unlikely to be immediate. This changes everything. Postcards notes that SB1811 almost went off the rails even before it got back to the Senate.

In the House, the leadership initially sought to wipe out the midnight deadline so Democrats couldn’t use it as a weapon; the bill was not eligible to be considered until 10 p.m., leaving a narrow window for action on such a large bill.

Instead, the Republicans waived the rules so they could bring SB 1811 up earlier, but only after House Speaker Joe Straus cast a rare vote.

Iconoclast David Simpson, R-Longview, joined the Democrats in opposition.

So the House proceeded in the early evening with its discussion of the mammoth, 393-page bill, primarily focusing on the school finance component.

The state will reduce by $4 billion the amount that it owes school districts under current law. The school finance provision in SB 1811 apportions that reduction among school districts.

“This proposal reflects the decisions of this body in House Bill 1,” said House Public Education Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, referring to the budget bill.

That school finance provision, which was grafted onto the bill at the tail end of the session, apportions a $4 billion reduction in state aid among the school districts. Democrats objected that the school finance proposal was thrown together without input from the public or rank-and-file members.

“Now we’re being told we better the heck pass it or we’ll be in a special session, so close your eyes and hold your nose and vote for it,” said Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston.

But Hochberg said there is little understanding about what exactly is in the compromise proposal.

The printouts that detail how each district is affected by the reduction were not delivered to House members until Saturday afternoon, and the bill language itself was not available online until Sunday morning.

“We’re making a very big change here without any discussion,” Hochberg said. “We never brought a school finance bill to the floor this session. Never.”

That’s the key point here: SB1811 was being brought up for a vote at the very last minute because it wasn’t finalized until then. Everyone was being asked to vote on something they surely hadn’t read or understood. You’d think that would be a concern for more of them, but the Republicans in the House have dutifully followed orders from above from the beginning, so why should this be any different? During closing remarks – did we mention that debate was limited on this bill and amendments were prohibited? – Democrats expanded on their objections to it.

Rep. René Oliveira, D-Brownsville, said that the proposal would codify the existing funding inequity into the system. He read a list of the spreads in funding in per student spending between the richer school districts and the poorer districts in various Senatorial districts — pointing out that the difference can be as much as several thousand dollars between the districts.

Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Dallas, was just as critical of the proposal.

“Today, what you’re voting for is Edgewood Foor,” he said and compared the decision not to touch the Rainy Day Fund to what would happen if a parent was late on child support. He said that any judge would laugh that parent out of court if they claimed they couldn’t meet their child support payment because they were preserving their savings account just in case things got worse.

Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, said that the proposal would shortchange school funding by allowing the state to discount the ‘settle up’ expenses that the state owes the state.

“We’re making a very, very big change without any discussion,” said Hochberg. He warned that the proposal could drastically alter how programs for the gifted and talented and for shop programs are calculated in school finance.

Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, complained bitterly that the bill had only been available for reading for less than 24 hours and that the “lack of transparency” was a violation of conservative principles.

“This bill is full of the accounting tricks and chicanery that your voters said they were tired of,” said Strama.

Yeah, somehow I don’t think they really care all that much. They’ll get outraged over Sen. Davis’ filibuster for whatever reason is convenient, and it will go from there. I can’t say I’m thrilled about legislative overtime, but I salute Sen. Davis for standing up and refusing to go along to get along. A statement from Se. Jose Rodriguez in support of Sen. Davis is beneath the fold.

UPDATE: Rick Perry – Rick Perry! – just accused Sen. Davis of being a “show horse”. This is like Charlie Sheen accusing someone of being an unstable egotist.


Special session for windstorm insurance looms

Today may be sine die for the 82nd Legislature, but members should be prepared to come back later this summer.

Legislative negotiators announced Saturday night that they could not reach agreement on a windstorm insurance reform bill, making a special legislative session all but certain.

State Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, emerged from the talks and said that because of legislative deadlines, there seemed to be no hope of an agreement before the session ends Monday.

Gov. Rick Perry said earlier Saturday that he would call lawmakers back to Austin if they could not reach a deal on revamping the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association.

See here for some background. Perry’s office has released a statement that blames trial lawyers but doesn’t explicitly mention a special session. Everyone seems to think there will be one for this, however, so keep your eye out for future statements. Recent history suggests that the call would come around the end of June. The question then becomes, will Congressional redistricting get added to the call? Maybe.

Perry told reporters that he would only call legislators back to Austin on redistricting if lawmakers agree on a map in advance.

“Obviously my druthers is that this bill gets taken care of by the Legislature. I don’t think it’s the courts’ business,” Perry said. “When they get to an agreed bill, then I would be wiling to talk about having them back in there for a very quick two- or three-day session to get redistricting done.”

Perry said he would not call lawmakers into a session without a deal in advance.

“Why would I call someone in when you don’t know whether they’re going to be able to perform,” Perry said. “To bring people in for 30 days and spend $5 million is irresponsible.”

I have to say, I agree with him. The Lege and not the courts should draw the map, but if the Lege is unable or unwilling to get the job done, then there’s no point in wasting time trying to force them. So consider June 30 or thereabouts to be the functional deadline for a legislative map to emerge. Trail Blazers has more.

Smoking ban well and truly dead

Nice try, but no dice.

Many thought this was the year. But Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, acknowledged on Saturday that a measure establishing a statewide smoking ban in Texas is dead.

Crownover blamed its failure on a “handful” of Senate conferees who refused to keep a smoking ban amendment on Senate Bill 1811, a sweeping fiscal matters bill. She said the amendment would have saved taxpayers $30 million in Medicaid spending over the next biennium.

The smoking ban language that had been added by the House was taken out by the Senate on Thursday. Crownover had hoped to get it back in, but clearly that didn’t happen.

“I am proud of the work we did this session. We passed this legislation in committee in both chambers and won a major victory on the House floor,” Crownover said. “Science, logic and reasoning are on our side now, and ten years from now the idea of smoking in a restaurant will be as bizarre an idea as smoking on an airplane is today.”

Crownover said by raw numbers, she had a majority of votes in both the House and Senate to pass the smoking ban. But because of Senate rules, which require a two-thirds vote to bring bills to the floor, “a unified minority” blocked her legislation.

Which suggests to me Rep. Crownover will face the same problem next time as well. Not that it will stop her, nor should it. Trail Blazers has more.

Weekend link dump for May 29

I don’t care when the solstice is, this is the official beginning of summer. And a day before the end of the Texas legislative session. You can’t tell me that’s a coincidence.

Ever wonder what Weight Watchers was like in the 1970s? Here are some recipe cards from 1974 to show you. Three words: “Fluffy mackerel pudding”.

Bin Laden’s naughty stash. Some things really are worth dying for, I suppose.

Can you make sure these things point towards New Jersey? Thanks.

When IBM’s Watson starts playing doctor, it should be good for all of us.

What do Republican Congress members have to hide?

The spam value chain, and how it could be broken.

The red crested tree rat is not extinct. I’m sure it’s glad to hear that.

From the “Speling iz overated” files.

There are only four possible outcomes from the GOP Presidential primary.

How they downloaded music on their phones in 1892.

I’d listen to Ray Lewis if I were the NFL.

Did we say May 21 was rapture day? Sorry, we meant October 21. Forgot to carry the one in there. Our bad. Hope all of you that sold everything you owned can hold out till then.

The culture war is over, and gay marriage has won.

Has it really been a year since “Lost” ended? We may never see another show like it again.

The Republicans have theirs. You can go move to Canada or some other socialist hellhole.

Seventy songs for Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday.

Republicans should disavow the Ryan plan to kill Medicare because it won’t actually do anything to control costs.

Maybe you should apologize to Detroit, Mitt.

One year later, Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution” did have a positive effect on Huntington, WV.

Some good and not so good advice for college graduates.

Ten Famous, Memorable and Notorious Latina Maids.

Some alternate names for that Sarah Palin movie.

Now more than ever, the GOP is the same as it ever was.

See, I knew I liked Miley Cyrus for a reason.

Your long commute is bad for you. Another reason not to live way out in the ‘burbs.

Finally! The Candwich is now available at your local convenience-food store.

Maybe we should treat students like prisoners. It couldn’t be any worse.

RIP, Margo Dydek.

There still could be a special session

Even if the Lege manages to pass a school finance plan, there’s still an issue (not Congressional redistricting) that may force a special session: Windstorm insurance.

“The governor stated to me this morning that if we were unable to reach agreement, he most assuredly would call a special session on this issue July 15,” said Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas. “It’s quite possible based on that statement that we’ll be in special session this summer.”

TWIA, the insurer of last resort for people seeking coverage for damage from hurricanes and other storms in 14 Texas counties, is running out of money. Hurricane Ike hit the pool particularly hard, and the lawsuits that followed the first round of settlements have further drained it; TWIA is still paying claims from that storm. The money is replenished by insurance companies, which then take credits against their state taxes until they’re repaid. In other words, the shortages in the fund are ultimately paid by taxpayers.

The fight over the bill, Carona said, boils down to an argument between to wealthy and powerful men: trial lawyer Steve Mostyn and Gov. Rick Perry. Mostyn has made millions from lawsuits over windstorm insurance claims. And he’s spent hundreds of thousands of those dollars on Democratic candidates opposing Perry.

“There’s no denying this is becoming a very personal matter between two very powerful individuals,” Carona said.

Lawmakers are arguing over legislation that would limit claims on the fund and damages awarded in lawsuits, and the House and Senate have been unable to find middle ground. Carona said the Senate agreed to a bill that would limit penalties in windstorm insurance claims against TWIA to 18 percent, the current limit. Perry and House legislators want the penalty limit scaled to zero. The other sticking point, Carona said, is a measure that would increase the burden of proof for ratepayers who sue TWIA, making it more difficult for homeowners who feel the insurer wronged them to collect damages.

Carona said both sides have strong arguments, but the fight has become intractable. “It’s a disappointment, but this kind of breakdown happens in the political process,” he said.

I don’t know anything about the details of this, but given recent legislative history I’m leery of any attempt to limit people’s ability to file for and collect on claims. If a special session is called for this, I would not be surprised if the call is limited to just this, much as the special session from 2009 was limited to unfinished sunset bills. Note that as with 2003, that session wasn’t called till the end of June, so don’t draw any conclusions if nothing happens in the first few days after sine die. The Chron and Trail Blazers have more.

Vote on school finance today

On Friday night, the Lege finally reached an agreement on school finance, which is to say on how to distribute the $4 billion in cuts to public education to the school districts. Today the Lege gets to vote on that deal.

House leaders wanted a two-year plan cutting school funding across the board by about 6 percent.

The Senate insisted lawmakers address the controversial “target revenue” system that has created disparities in school district funding. The compromise will use across-the-board cuts for the coming school year before turning to the Senate’s version for the 2012-13 school year.

“We believe it’s the best way to distribute those dollars out to our communities,” Shapiro said.

The deal has been called part Eissler and part Shapiro, which is to say part of HB400 and part of SB22.

Preliminary numbers indicate that Houston ISD will lose about $84 million the first year and an estimated $119 million in the second year — or cuts of roughly $328 per student in the first year followed by $490 the second year. Those numbers are based on earlier printouts that should be fairly close when the newest district-by-district impact figures come out, Shapiro said.

Based on the preliminary details, HISD faces a smaller cut next year than district officials had projected, but they expressed concern about deeper cuts the following year.

Hair Balls noted on Thursday that the HISD Board of Trustees was cautiously optimistic that their remaining shortfall would end up being less than they had originally planned for.

Although leaders reached an agreement on school funding, individual lawmakers will have to assess the impact of the funding cuts on the school districts they represent before ratifying the plan. Most if not all 49 House Democrats are expected to oppose the plan to cut funding to public education — especially when use of the state’s rainy day fund could have avoided those cuts.

“It’s unbelievable that we would lay off teachers, increase class sizes, cut Pre-K programs and hurt our schools across the board while there is more than enough money sitting in the rainy day fund to avoid the cuts completely,” said Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston.

Without Democrats, House Republicans would need 76 of their 101 members to support the agreement. Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, one of the House negotiators, said, “I think we can sell this.”

I hope you can, too. I can’t wait for the 2012 campaigns to start noting that this Republican or that voted to cut billions of dollars from public schools. Remember, the House and every Republican in it originally voted to cut $8 billion from public education, so whatever cuts they end up approving for their own schools, they were prepared to approve cuts twice as big. Oh, yeah, I’m ready for this to quit being a legislative issue and start being a campaign issue. Have fun voting on your cuts, Republicans. School Zone and EoW have more.

Budget passes

It’s official.

The Texas House and Senate passed a state budget Saturday that cuts billions from public schools, state universities and health care for the elderly.

The $172 billion legislation now goes to Gov. Rick Perry for his signature.

Facing a massive revenue shortfall, lawmakers crafted the budget by making cuts and using deferrals rather than raising taxes or dipping into the $10 billion reserve fund.

The Senate voted 20-11, mostly along party lines. McAllen Sen. Chuy Hinojosa was the only Democrat who supported the bill.


In all funds, the plan for 2012-2013 is $15 billion less than the current budget, but that doesn’t account for the costs of providing services to new population.

According to Postcards, the House vote was 97-53 for the budget – guess that means the Speaker cast a vote as well – and according to the Trib, one of the four Republican votes against was the turncoat Aaron Pena. Nice to see that he remains consistent in his lack of principles. That means that all 49 House Dems voted No, which is exactly what they should have done. Not much else for me to say about this, so let me turn it over to the numerous statements I’ve received, all of which are reproduced beneath the fold.


Judge rules against Nikki Araguz

This is unfortunate.

A judge has ruled that the marriage between a Wharton fire captain killed in the line of duty and his transgender wife was not legal, an attorney in the case said Tuesday.

Frank Mann III, one of the attorneys representing family members of Thomas Trevino Araguz III, said he had received notice from the office of State District Judge Randy Clapp that the judge ruled in his client’s favor.

“It is our understanding, having read a draft order circulated by Judge Clapp, that he has ruled that any marriage between Thomas Araguz and Nikki Araguz is void as a matter of law,” Mann said in a prepared statement sent by email a few minutes after 5 p.m., when the judge’s office was closed. Mann said he had a proposed order from the judge but was not allowed to circulate it.


Noel Freeman, president of the Houston Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Political Caucus, said by phone that the news was very disappointing, given that Nikki Araguz had presented legal documents, including her reissued birth certificate, showing she is female.

“Here you have a birth certificate, a legally binding document, which the court has chosen to completely ignore,” Freeman said. “The transgender community jumps through a lot of legal hoops — records of sex changes, amended birth certificates – to try to live the same life that everybody else gets to live. This is a very frustrating setback.”

See here for some background. This will be appealed, and we’re a long way from getting any kind of resolution. The issues here are a lot more complicated than they need to be.

Steidley, representing Nikki Araguz, argued that the marriage was legal because a 2009 change in the Texas Family Code allows a person to get a marriage license on the basis of a sex change recognized by the court.

But Burwell said the 2009 change in the family code did not overturn a 1999 Texas case, Littleton v. Prange, which is typically cited in Texas as the basis for determining a person’s sex. That case held that a person’s gonads, genitalia and chromosomes determine sex at birth.

The problem with that argument, of course, is that you can’t always determine someone’s gender at birth. Some people are born with the gonads, genitalia, and chromosomes of both sexes. What has usually happened is that they have surgery while they are still infants to assign one gender or another to them. Sometimes, the surgeon who did this guessed wrong about what gender the person “should” be, and that person corrects it later in life. Others have chosen to live with it. Different approaches are sometimes taken today, but the basic point remains that gender is more of a continuum than a binary option, and it’s more of a social construct than a biological one.

Our attempt to force the social construct of gender into our laws has led to contradictions, which is why the El Paso County Clerk asked AG Greg Abbott for an opinion about whether or not it was legal to issue a marriage license to a transgender woman who wanted to marry another woman. Going by the logic of “you are the sex you were at birth”, the answer is yes, but our laws against gay marriage say no. Abbott took the easy way out and declined to offer an opinion because of pending litigation like this, but the underlying issue remains unsettled, as the Lege did not address that 2009 law this session. The simplest answer to all of this, of course, is to quit dictating who can and cannot get married to whom and just allow any two consenting adults to get a marriage license. Do that and all these thorny legal questions magically disappear. Organized religions are still free to impose their own restrictions, but the state of Texas, and every other state, should not. In the meantime, our twisted reasoning has led to a situation where transgender folks could be not allowed to marry anyone at all. I would hope that a court will eventually rule against this unconstitutional mess. It’s just a shame that people will have to keep suffering for our poor lawmaking until then.

Saturday video break: Sine die, already

Monday is the last day of the session for the Texas Legislature. On behalf of all people who care about Texas, I think this sums it up:

May we never have a session like this one again. What song would you dedicate to the soon-to-be-departing Lege?

Maybe Perry for President would be good for us

When George W. Bush began being talked about as a Presidential candidate, the story line on him was that he was a well-liked, popular Governor who had bipartisan appeal and support in the state. Outgoing Democratic Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock supported him. Democratic House Speaker Pete Laney supported him. Numerous Democratic officeholders in Texas supported him. On the strength of all that, he went on to win Texas by 20 or more points in 2000 and 2004.

Now consider Rick Perry. “Well-liked” and “bipartisan appeal” are not words you would ever associate with him. As for “popular”, it’s true that he has strong support within the Republican Party, which would certainly be an asset in another primary, and it’s true that he won big against a strong, well-funded Democratic opponent this past year. But consider how he did compared to other Republicans on the ballot:

Candidate Votes Pct ============================ Perry 2,737,481 54.97% Porter 2,880,765 59.40% Green 2,903,359 60.02% Keasler 2,906,012 60.48% Lehrmann 2,907,796 59.87% Guzman 2,919,054 60.34% Staples 2,953,775 60.82% Patterson 3,001,736 61.66% Dewhurst 3,049,109 61.78% Abbott 3,151,064 64.05%

Perry received 200,000 to 400,000 fewer votes than other Republicans at the top of the ticket. Those votes went to Democrat Bill White, who got more than 300,000 more votes than the next best Dem on the ticket. He ran six to nine points behind his ballot mates. Compare this to Bush’s gubernatorial re-election in 1998:

Candidate Votes Pct ============================ Bush 2,550,821 68.23% Perry 1,858,837 50.04% Cornyn 2,002,794 54.25% Rylander 1,821,231 49.54% Dewhurst 2,072,604 57.42% Combs 2,021,385 56.29% Garza 2,051,253 56.92% Enoch 2,049,640 58.18% O'Neill 1,891,339 53.52% Abbott 2,104,828 60.10% Hankinson 1,995,811 56.90% Keasler 1,889,069 53.96% Johnson 2,013,959 57.78%

The contrast couldn’t be clearer. A significant number of Democrats voted for Bush in 1998. A significant number of Republicans did not vote for Perry in 2010. And before you ask, no these wayward Republicans did not choose Libertarian Kathie Glass instead. In fact, Glass did worse than every other Lib in a three-way or more race, both in terms of vote total and percentage:

Candidate Votes Pct ============================ Glass 109,211 2.19% Jameson 122,142 2.47% Roland 112,118 2.27% Holdar 148,271 3.04% Donaldson 164,035 3.37% Gary 138,978 2.86% Strange 138,857 2.85% Oxford 144,306 2.98% Armstrong 195,234 4.03% Virasin 139,299 2.89%

So what does this have to do with a Presidential campaign? Well, Perry has no crossover appeal – he has anti-appeal, as a non-trivial number of Republicans won’t vote for him. A six point swing in 2008, about the difference between Perry and Todd Staples from last year, would have been enough to put Barack Obama ahead of John McCain in 2008. To put it another way, having Rick Perry at the top of the ticket next year could do more to make Texas a swing state than anything anyone else has ever done.

Now obviously not all of those Republicans who voted for Bill White instead of Rick Perry last year would vote for Barack Obama. Some would, but many – likely most – would not. But even a three point swing would make things a lot closer; it would have been enough to elect Sam Houston, and would have brought Susan Strawn within a tenth of a percent. Obama still has room to grow among Democrats in Texas, both in terms of better turnout among registered voters, and as we’ll see later holding onto Democratic voters in some parts of the state. How much room do you think Rick Perry has to grow?

Of course there are plenty of other factors to consider here, the economy being first and foremost. If we learned one thing from the 2010 experience, it’s that where you start out and where you end up can be very different, and no one can say what will happen till the campaigning actually begins. As we’ve discussed, Obama consistently polled between eight and 12 points behind McCain in 2008. Wouldn’t you love to see a poll of Texas that matches up Perry and Obama? (Rasmussen has a national poll that shows Obama leading Perry 45-28, but that’s a function of name recognition.) I don’t think Perry does any better in Texas than McCain did against Obama. Maybe I’m wrong and Perry would have a comfortable double-digit lead in a poll that has a reasonable model for a Presidential year. And maybe I’m right and Perry is unable to top 50% and up by only a few. How do you suppose that might change the narrative of this little buzzlet?

Like I said, just a thought. I could very easily be wrong. But either way, I hope that a PPP or someone like them puts a poll in the field, just for grins. Who knows, maybe the result might surprise us.

TV recycling redux

Back in 2009, the Lege passed a bill that would have required television manufacturers that sell TVs in Texas to set up a recycling program for old sets. This was modeled after similar legislation passed in 2007 for computers and computer manufacturers. Unfortunately, the bill was vetoed by Rick Perry despite assurances from his staff that he was okay with it. Well, recycling advocates have gotten another bill passed, SB329, which they hope won’t get vetoed this time. Here’s the press release from Texas Campaign for the Environment:

Austin, TX – Environmentalists and recycling groups are celebrating a victory as a bill to spur recycling for obsolete televisions (Senate Bill 329) has passed through the Texas House of Representatives. The legislation, which already passed in the Texas Senate, would ensure that all manufacturers selling TVs to Texas consumers will offer recycling programs for all residents. With support from industry groups, local governments and recycling advocates, the bill will soon head to the Governor’s desk.

“This measure will keep toxic lead and mercury out of Texas landfills, while creating jobs in the recycling industry and saving local tax dollars,” said Robin Schneider, Executive Director for Texas Campaign for the Environment. “We’re proud of our State Representatives and Senators for passing this important bill, and we urge Governor Perry to sign it into law when it reaches his desk.”

Each year, Americans dispose of an estimated 25 million televisions. Old-style CRT televisions can contain several pounds of lead and many newer flat-screen TVs contain mercury. Typically, only one in every five TVs is recycled. The legislation, sponsored by Senator Kirk Watson (D-Austin) and Representative Warren Chisum (R-Pampa), puts the companies that make and sell televisions in charge of recycling them.

The legislation is similar to a 2007 state law that made computer manufacturers responsible for recycling their products in Texas. Under this law, computer-makers collected and recycled over 24 million pounds of old electronics in Texas last year.

Industry support has been a key factor in the bill’s success so far. The Consumer Electronics Association, which represents over 2,000 electronics companies, supports the bill. Local governments have also voiced their support – dozens of cities and counties, representing over half of all Texans, have passed local resolutions in favor of the bill. Twenty-four other states have passed similar laws for electronics recycling.

“It’s not just our environment that benefits – this program will also save local taxpayers money,” said Zac Trahan, Houston Director for Texas Campaign for the Environment. “We applaud the manufacturers for taking responsibility for recycling old TVs. We should not spend our tax dollars to subsidize the handling of this waste.”

The version of the bill passed by the State House is slightly different than the version passed by the Senate. A special conference committee will work out the differences between the two, and then the bill will be sent to the Governor’s desk.

The Statesman has editorialized in favor of SB329. If you want to help TCE with their efforts to convince the Governor that this worthwhile bill, which passed nearly unanimously, should be signed, go here. I hope that in this case it’s the second time that’s the charm.

Anti-bullying bill passed

There hasn’t been a whole lot of good news this session, but this certainly qualifies.

Eight months after Cy-Fair middle school student Asher Brown’s suicide, the Texas Senate unanimously approved “anti-bullying” legislation aimed at giving school administrators authority to prevent ongoing harassment of students.


State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, said the legislation will allow school officials to reassign bullies or their victims to other campuses or classes.

Added Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, “The real goal is prevention. We’ve got to hold public school officials accountable when they know about these acts.”

On Tuesday the House concurred with the Senate’s amendments to the bill, HB1942, sending it on its way to the Governor’s desk. Assuming he doesn’t veto it (so far there’s no indication he will) it will be another good day when this law takes effect. For more on the background and legislative journey of this and other related bills, see Legislative Queery. Equality Texas has more.

Another microbrewer comes to town

The beer scene in Houston keeps getting better.

Eric Warner was at the well-regarded Flying Dog Brewery in Colorado for a decade, as brewmaster and then as chief executive. While there, the brewery came out with such beers as Snake Dog IPA, Double Dog double pale ale, Gonzo Imperial Porter and Dogtoberfest Märzen.

By the time Flying Dog moved production to Maryland and Warner left the company in 2008, Flying Dog was a national brand with annual production of 50,000 barrels, up from 10,000 when he started.

Now the 47-year-old is bringing his talent, a quarter-century’s brewing experience and his interest in startups to Houston.

Karbach Brewing Co. has brewing equipment on site, in a warehouse under renovation in the same U.S. 290/Loop 610 West part of town where Saint Arnold started.

Warner said the company will have more than $1 million invested in the brewery by the time it begins operations in late July or August.

The Karbach beers will be on draft around town two months after that.

Packaging — in 12-ounce cans, meant to fit the lifestyle of active Texans – should follow shortly.

“Hopefully, people can take a couple of six-packs of Karbach beer to the Thanksgiving table,” Warner said one recent morning, while making a test batch of “Weisse Versa” wheat beer that will be among three year-round offerings.

That’s now three new microbreweries in the Houston area in the last year, plus the forthcoming Freetail brewpub. Not too shabby. I wish them all well. Beer, TX has more.

Maybe the problem is that the national GOP isn’t nutty enough

Have no fear, Texas may come to the rescue. First, there’s Dan Patrick.

Houston state Sen. Dan Patrick announced this morning he’s forming an exploratory committee for the US Senate seat being abandoned by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison . Patrick is a talk radio show host and one of the most conservative members of the Texas Senate. The announcement — which Patrick made on conservative talk radio host Laura Ingraham this morning — puts Patrick on a potential collection course with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Dewhurst is eyeing the seat.

“Is there support? Can I raise the money. If so, I’ll make the decision,” Patrick told Ingraham, saying he expects to formally decide whether to jump in the next four or five weeks. A recent dustup between Patrick and Dewhurst makes looks like the episode that prompted the Houston senator’s decision. The two bickered over a bill to curb aggressive airport screening. Patrick says he had the votes until somebody distributed a letter on the Senate floor from the Justice Department questioning whether the bill was constitutional. Patrick blames Dewhurst, the Senate’s presiding officer.

And if that weren’t enough, there’s Rick Perry.

In his strongest statement yet about running for president, Gov. Rick Perry said day he will consider running for president after Legislature adjourns. “I’m going to think about it,” the Republican governor said today. In the past, Perry has effectively ruled out a race for president, saying he doesn’t want to go to Washington. But his tone has shifted in recent days with aides saying he has “no intention” of running. But Perry’s name is an increasingly hot property in politics as nobody in the Republican field seems to have emerged as a clear front-runner.

I don’t think the country’s big enough to handle both of their egos and delusions on a national stage. What’s scary is that the most likely scenario I can think of that prevents Perry from running is a Sarah Palin candidacy. As for Danno, who knows? Hair Balls is right, it will at least be entertaining watching the hundreds of Senatorial wannabees tear each other apart. My only concern is that it may cause a singularity to form. On the other hand, if we’re lucky, it might cause them all to get sucked into the Gamma quadrant. Gotta have hope, you know?

Friday random ten – Songs of the Century, part 3

Continuing with songs in my collection from the Songs of the Century as compiled by the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.

1. Take Five – Dave Brubeck (#49)
2. America The Beautiful – Ray Charles/The Sun Harbor’s Chorus (#50, Louise Homer)
3. Sweet Georgia Brown – Ray Brown Trio/Illinois Jacquet (#54, Ben Bernie Orchestra)
4. When You Wish Upon A Star – Ringo Starr and Herb Alpert (#55, Cliff Edwards)
5. Louie, Louie – The MOB (#57, The Kingsmen)
6. God Bless The Child – Billie Holliday (#58)
7. I Walk The Line – Lager Rhythms (#61, Johnny Cash)
8. The Star Spangled Banner – U2/Eddie From Ohio (#62, John McCormick)
9. Zip A Dee Doo Dah – Harry Nilsson (#67, Johnny Mercer)
10. Auld Lang Syne – SixMileBridge/Straight No Chaser (#73, Frank Stanley)

A couple of Disney songs make their appearance this week. I took a look ahead to see how many others there would be, and to my surprise that’s it for them. Given how many of them are considered standards, I fully expected to see a lot more. The MOB, which you will see a few more times as we go forward, actually got to perform “Louie, Louie” with the original Kingsmen at a halftime show about ten years ago. I thought that was pretty cool.

Round 2 song report: Started with “Emancipated Minor”, by Ani DeFranco. Finished with “Grand Hotel”, by Procol Harum, song #373, for a total of 92 tunes this week. The last E song was “Eye of the Tiger”, by the MOB. (See? We’re everywhere.) The first F song was “Factory”, by Bruce Springsteen. The last F song was “The Fuschia Wall”, by 50 Foot Wave. The first G song was “Gear Jammer”, by George Thorogood & The Destroyers. Have a great Memorial Day weekend!

HCC redistricting

Turns out that the HCC Trustees have done some work on redistricting for themselves. Their meeting agenda for May 19 lists “Resolution Accepting Draft Plans for Redistricting of HCCS Board of Trustees Districts and Confirming Public Hearings” as the fourth item under the Consent Agenda. You can see a copy of the draft plans here. There are three drafts, all of which looks pretty similar to me. If you’re wondering what North Forest and Alief ISDs have to do with anything, the answer is that they were annexed into the HCC system, in 2009 for North Forest and 2008 for Alief. That has the effect of enlarging HCC’s territory, so those areas must be incorporated into the new map.

There will be three public meetings to solicit feedback on the redistricting plans. Details about these hearings are here. I would presume, though I cannot say for sure, that some variant on one of these maps will be adopted at the next Board meeting on June 16. That’s all I know – if I hear any more, I’ll let you know.

Bradley and Lowe fail to get confirmed

Time for some new chairpersons.

Gov. Rick Perry’s appointments of John Bradley as head of the Forensic Science Commission and Gaile Lowe as State Board of Education chair are officially toast, Senate Nominations Chairman Bob Deuell, R-Greenville said.

“They’re sine die with the rest of us — except they won’t have to come back for a special session,” Deuell said Wednesday after submitting his last round of Perry appointees for Senate consideration.

Since they weren’t confirmed, the appointments of the two chairs will end when the regular session draws to a close Monday.

In the case of John Bradley, that’s almost certainly a good thing. Perry can replace him with another hack, of course, but it’s hard to imagine anyone doing more damage to the Forensic Science Commission than Bradley did. As for Lowe, well, there is still another level of absurdity that can be achieved. And two years from now, we’ll go through this again. Grits has more.

Primary date will not be moved

A bill that would have moved the primary elections in Texas to April was amended at the last minute to move up the filing deadline instead.

After a testy exchange, House lawmakers gave initial approval to a voting bill that would push up the election filing period in order to give military voters more time to get absentee ballots.

The outcome wasn’t what Rep. Van Taylor, R-Plano, wanted. The original bill carried by the military veteran, along with Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, would have moved Texas’ primary from March to April, and moved runoffs from May to June. It was an effort to bring Texas in line with a federal rule granting overseas citizens at least 45 days to cast absentee ballots.

Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, amended Taylor’s bill to keep the primary date the same — the first Tuesday in March — but push the filing period from January into December in order to meet the terms of the federal MOVE Act. He said moving Texas’ already late primary date back would make the state a non-player in the presidential campaign season. And it would also bleed into spring break, complicating voting for many.

See here and here for some background. Runoffs will now be the fourth Tuesday in May, meaning they could be the day after Memorial Day. Some municipalities had previously expressed concerns about late April primaries conflicting with May city elections; I don’t know if this fully addresses that or not, and I don’t know how many places have May elections in even-numbered years, though I suspect they’re a much smaller group than the group that has them in odd-numbered years. I’m not thrilled about having the filing deadline be that much earlier – the election season seems to start early enough already, don’t you think? – but moving election dates around is tricky business, too. I’m not sure what would be best, but the Lege had to do something to comply with the federal statute. Trail Blazers has more.

RIP, HB602


Texans won’t be buying liquor on Sunday and the state’s 29 brewpubs won’t be competing with their out-of-state rivals on local grocery shelves.

And Texas breweries or liquor distillers still can’t sell a 12-pack of beer or a souvenir bottle of bourbon to tourists, as the Legislature has killed all bills related to changes in state laws on beer and liquor retailing.

“We got railroaded,” said Dan Garrison with Garrison Brothers Distillery, a Hill Country distiller who wanted the ability to sell a souvenir bottle of his bourbon to tour groups.

Garrison’s comment could sum up the frustration of the smallest players in the state’s beer and liquor industry that is controlled by giants.

Rep. Mike Hamilton, R-Mauriceville, chairs the House Committee on Licensing and Administrative Procedures, where most of the alcohol-related bills died this session.

He said it’s difficult to change decades-old laws without affecting someone’s financial interest.

Translation: It’s difficult to give small brewers and distillers an even break because doing so might put a tiny dent in the massive, oligarchic profits of the big distributors.

Most attempts to change beer or liquor laws eventually bump up against the state’s post-Prohibition rules that maintain distinct boundaries between manufacturers, distributors and retailers, in what is commonly called the three-tiered system.

House Bill 660 would have allowed brewpub owners to sell their beer through distributors at retail outlets. The brewpubs said they would expand and create jobs.

The Beer Alliance of Texas and the Licensed Beverage Distributors supported the bill, while the rival Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas opposed it. That was enough to kill it in Hamilton’s committee.

Likewise, Rep. Jessica Farrar’s House Bill 602, which would have allowed microbreweries to sell 12-packs of beer to tour groups, fell victim to competition between two distributor groups.

And once again, the deciding factor in this debate is what’s good for the distributors, and not for the customers. The customers always lose. On the one hand, legislation to allow microbreweries to sell their product onsite made it farther than it had before, and given the way the Lege works you have to hope that this represents progress. On the other hand, to come this far and see it fall just short is that much more wrenching because you could see the finish line. I’m sure I’ll feel hopeful again in time for the next session, but for now I’m just pissed off. Lee Nichols has more.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story.

Saint Arnold Brewing Co. founder Brock Wagner, one of the driving forces behind this and two previous legislative efforts, said he was “annoyed” at the continued failure to pass a bill that had no other organized opposition.

“We just got outgunned,” he said.

“The laws in Texas need to be changed,” he said. “Right now, the laws in Texas are biased against in-state craft breweries. It makes no sense.”

I couldn’t agree more.

We have a budget

Such as it is.

Budget negotiators met briefly this morning and voted 9-1 to adopt a conference committee report that cuts the state budget over the next biennium by $15 billion, or 8 percent. The total amount of funding from taxpayers, known as general funds, is $80.4 billion. The total expenditures for all funds, including federal money, is $172.3 billion.

Senate Finance Chair Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, and House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, told reporters their respective chambers are expected to vote on the report as early as Saturday afternoon.

“We have covered the entire (2010-2011) biennial deficit and the budget is balanced for the next two years. And at the end of the day, that’s a pretty extraordinary accomplishment considering the challenge we were in,” Ogden said.

I suppose a Hollywood accountant might call this a “balanced” budget, but between the delayed payments to school districts, the $4.8 billion hot check for Medicaid, the fantasizing about federal waivers and higher-than-projected property tax revenues, it’s a budget built on cotton candy and hallucinations. And that’s before we consider the cost of slashing $4 billion from public education, which was the best case scenario for that. What still hasn’t been done is to figure out how to spread that $4 billion in cuts out over all the school districts.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, said there’s a provision in the budget agreement that makes Foundation School Program payments to school districts contingent on the House and Senate agreeing on school finance.

“If there is not agreement … there’s no appropriations to the Foundation School Program. We’d have to come back in special session,” Ogden said.

Abby Rapoport has more on what the school finance options are at this point. I assume they’re strongly motivated to avoid having to go into a special session. But even if they do, there’s still the question of whether or not the Comptroller will certify the budget. Rep. Garnet Coleman has some questions for Comptroller Combs:

1. Will you evaluate the combined revenue and expenses of all major pieces of legislation regarding the state’s fiscal matters, not just the primary budget bill (House Bill 1), in determining whether or not Texas has passed a balanced budget?

The Legislature is deliberating numerous “fiscal matters” bills that have consequences on our state’s finances for FY 2012-13. In 2003, the last time Texas faced a massive budget shortfall, Comptroller Carol Keeton Strayhorn determined that the budget was a “’patchwork’ piece of legislation that depends on several other bills to determine some of the spending” for the FY 2004-2005 budget. (Source: Associated Press, “Strayhorn criticizes lawmakers for ‘smoke and mirrors’ budget,” June 5, 2003).

Which, if any, bills other than House Bill 1 do you anticipate your office evaluating in order to determine whether or not you will certify the Texas budget?

2. Will you certify $4.8 billion in Medicaid expenses if they are not paid for with revenue Texas can identify in its budget?

Wayne Pulver, an assistant director at the Legislative Budget Board, stated before the Texas House Committee on Appropriations on Monday, May 16 that, “it is our estimate that with these funding decisions, the bill is short $4.8 billion in general revenue.” (Source: Associated Press, “Texas budget plan kicks Medicaid funding problem down the road,” May 21, 2011.) It is your intention to certify the Texas budget as balanced, even if we are budgeting to pay for something we do not have the money to pay for?

3. If you cannot certify the $4.8 billion in Medicaid expenses, will you send the budget back to the House in which it originated to ensure Texas passes a balanced budget?

In 2003, Comptroller Carol Keeton Strayhorn refused to certify the state’s budget because it spent $186.9 million more in the FY 2004-2005 biennium than the state could count as available revenue. Governor Rick Perry, under a special provision inserted by budget writers, was able to use line-item veto authority to cut expenditures in the budget by $186.9 million. Comptroller Strayhorn was then able to certify the budget.

However, the current $4.8 billion shortfall in Medicaid expenses is over twenty-five times the size of the 2003 budget shortfall Comptroller Strayhorn originally did not certify. It is my request that, provided you do not certify the $4.8 billion in Medicaid expenses that remain unaccounted for in any legislation being considered by the Texas Legislature, you do not send the budget to the Governor to balance the budget.

It is our duty, as legislators, to pass a balanced budget. Should you determine that the budget is not balanced, I would request that you send it back to the House in which the budget originated, as prescribed by Article 3, Section 49a(b) of the Texas Constitution.

You can read Rep. Coleman’s full letter to Comptroller Combs here. A statement from the CPPP is here, and a statement from Rep. Mike Villarreal is here. Trailblazers and EoW have more.

Will Perry call a special session to force the Lege to draw a Congressional map?


Gov. Rick Perry today said state lawmakers should be the ones to draw new congressional districts, not judges.

“I do think that the responsibility is with the members of the Legislature,” Perry said this morning. “To allow the courts to do that is not in the best interest of the people.”


There are six days left in the legislative session, and while Perry says he hopes lawmakers will get the job done, there is virtually no way that lawmakers can still tackle the task of congressional redistricting.

And here is the problem for Perry: The 2001 Legislature did not draw a new congressional map, leaving that job to federal courts. In 2003, Perry called lawmakers into repeated special sessions to do so.

So will he do that again? Numerous people close to Perry have said he will not.

I’m a little surprised by this. Greg has a theory (see second comment) that Perry is looking to get something from the Congressional delegation and will act when he has it. I think he may not want to get in the way of an intra-Republican pissing contest, between Lamar Smith and Joe Barton, and may just not care to have any distractions as he tries to get himself drafted to run for President. He’s usually pretty clear about what he wants and what he’ll do to get it, so it shouldn’t be too hard to tell. If the ongoing school finance negotiations fail to bear fruit and a special is needed to sort that mess out, then I don’t see how he avoids adding Congressional redistricting to the call. Will he do it just for that? So far I have no reason to believe he will, but that could change.

What’s different between now and 2001, when the Congressional map was also judicially drawn? (I seem to recall it’s been that way every time since 1971, the difference being that now Republicans have the control over the process.) In 2001, the House was still majority Democrat, and the two chambers could not agree on a bill. In addition, the Texas Congressional delegation was 17-15 D (though one of those Ds was Ralph Hall, who doesn’t count and who later switched to keep his seat), so the Republicans had a reasonable argument that the districts did not reflect the state’s political reality. (Much like Latinos have a decent argument now, not that it’s gotten them anywhere.) They also had a backup plan, which was to dominate the 2002 elections and redraw the map at that time to their preferences in the 2003 session.

The history of the 2003 legislative sessions is told as best I could at the time in my Killer D’s archive. Late in the session, some maps began to emerge, and though it wasn’t clear that anything could pass the Senate, House Democrats decided to take no chances and broke quorum on May 12, departing the state for Ardmore, OK, where they stayed for five days, returning after the House deadline for passing new bills had passed. After a number of redistricting hearings were held around the state, a special session was called to try again. After the House passed a map, everything came to a screeching halt as ten Senate Democrats plus Republican Bill Ratliff signed a letter saying they would not vote to suspend the rules and allow a redistricting bill to come to the floor. With the Senate’s two thirds rule in effect, that meant redistricting was dead for the session.

And that’s when it got even stranger. A second special session was called immediately after the first one ended, only this time with no “blocker bill”, meaning that the Senate’s two thirds rule was not in effect. This time, Senate Democrats took a powder, having previously announced their intent to do so under these conditions. They headed west to New Mexico and stayed there through the end of the second session. Two weeks after that, Sen. John Whitmire returned to Houston and announced his intent to attend Session #3; his comrades followed him home shortly thereafter and the next session was called. Finally, as time was running out in the third overtime, Tom DeLay swept into town, cracked a few heads, and got a deal done.

I give all that history to say that I can’t really think of a good reason why Rick Perry wouldn’t call a special session on Congressional redistricting. The two thirds rule in the Senate is hardly an obstacle, as they have demonstrated numerous times. There’s no way that a court will draw a friendlier map for Republicans than the Republicans themselves can. The only thing that makes sense to me is that he’s just biding his time, for whatever purpose. He waited 30 days before calling the first special session in 2003, so who’s to say he needs to act now. All I know is that if we go into 2012 with a map drawn by a three-judge panel or the like, it’ll be the biggest political mystery of recent years.

Finally, I should note that while the Senate Redistricting Committee may be fallow, other folks are taking on the map-drawing task. State Rep. Marc Veasey released a statement saying he “will present a statewide congressional redistricting map that provides the opportunity for Latino and African-American Texans to elect their candidate of choice as required by the Voting Rights Act, in recognition of the fact that minority population growth is the only reason Texas is receiving four additional congressional districts”. That’s happening at 9AM in the Speaker’s room at the Capitol. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with.

UPDATE: Welcome Kos Elections readers, and thanks very much to David Nir for the kind words. Roll Call suggests another possible reason why Perry isn’t motivated to call a special session on redistricting this time around:

If state lawmakers pass a map during special session, Perry will ultimately have control over it — and it’s likely the delegation won’t love the result. There’s still bad blood between Perry and the Texas delegation, which largely supported Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s (R) bid against the governor in 2010.

“If Perry takes control of the process, then at least you know that it will be a Republican-friendly map. It may not be a delegation-friendly map,” said one Texas GOP source close to the redistricting process. “He’s essentially let the Texas delegation know, ‘Don’t come to me with any favors.’ Read between the lines: The Congressional delegation, at least two-thirds of them, endorsed KBH in the primary.”

Never underestimate the power of spite, especially where Rick Perry is concerned.

It’s different when it’s his junk that’s getting touched

Oh, the irony.

The senator was in high dudgeon. “This was a come and take it moment for the state of Texas!” Dan Patrick proclaimed, trying to rally his fellow senators to stand up against the Feds, those high-handed intruders who had threatened to sue the state of Texas if Patrick’s “intrusive touching” bill became law.

To his dismay, though, the Houston lawmaker was left to face the Feds alone, abandoned not only by his fellow senators but by the lieutenant governor himself. Patrick ended up withdrawing House Bill 1937 from further consideration.

“It’s great when your lieutenant governor works against your bill while you’re on the floor,” Patrick muttered as he stalked off the Senate floor. (The lieutenant governor, of course, had a different view of the matter).

The little state/federal drama started late Tuesday night when Patrick assured Dewhurst he had the votes to bring up his bill, which would prohibit “intrusive touching” at airports and other public buildings. Patrick said the legislation, co-sponsored by state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, was designed to prevent security screeners from touching the genitals and other private parts when people go through checkpoints. He said the bill would classify certain invasive and inappropriate conduct used in certain searches as official oppression, a crime under Texas law.

So just to review, it’s perfectly fine for the state of Texas to require a doctor to shove a probe up a woman’s vagina before she’s allowed to have an abortion, but it’s official oppression if a TSA screener accidentally brushes a hand on Dan Patrick’s wee-wee while searching for explosives before he boards a plane. Maybe if we made TSA screeners have a sonogram before being allowed to touch anyone’s junk, that would solve the problem. Patrick’s subsequent freakout, blaming Dewhurst for the bill’s death, and the lunatic mob that showed up prepared to defend their own naughty bits against federal incursion just adds to the utter bizarreness of this episode. The Trib, Postcards, and In the Pink, which was thinking along the same lines as I was, have more.

One good thing that can be said about this session

A fair number of innocence-related bills have been passed this session. Some of them might have been passed in 2009 had it not been for the voter ID-killing chubfest, for others it was just that the stars finally aligned. Grits and Dave Mann have the details. Hopefully, the voices in Rick Perry’s head are not telling him to veto any of these bills. Each one represents a necessary step forward. Now if we can just make sure that the Forensic Science Commission bill doesn’t get screwed up.

Watered down payday lending bills pass Senate

It’s inadequate, but it’s the best we’re going to get out of this Legislature.

Senators took the plunge into payday lending reform Monday, passing two House bills that bring some oversight to the largely unregulated industry in Texas.

Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, said the legislation represents a “very, very delicate compromise” between consumer groups and the payday and auto title lending industry.

The legislation by Rep. Vicki Truitt, R-Keller, requires more disclosures by lenders about their fees and requires the companies to obtain licenses and report data to a state agency.

Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, and Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, pushed for stronger regulation and a cap on fees. The Truitt proposals don’t cap fees, which can often climb as high as 500 percent.

Unfortunately, the payday lending lobby was very strong, and they managed to avoid the things they didn’t want like caps on their fees. Sen. Davis highlights what was not done and why it matters.

Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, refused to vote on the bill, instead voting “present.” During debate, Davis spoke out passionately against the payday loan industry and said efforts to regulate it have gone nowhere. She introduced several amendments to strengthen the legislation but pulled them “out of respect” for the bill’s sponsor, Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas. Carona said the bill had received widespread support from the players affected by the legislation and that any changes would destroy it.

“We haven’t done anything in the state of Texas to help the people who are at the vulnerable end of this predatory practice,” she said. She also criticized the payday loan lobby for influencing lawmakers.

Davis said the bill does go far enough because it does not cap interest rates, allow partial re-payment options or limit the number of times payday lenders can “roll over” unpaid loans. She pointed out a loophole in the state’s finance code that has allowed the lenders to operate in the same category as those organizations that are supposed to get people out of debt. Instead, she said, their customers end up in “a cycle of debt” and the number of payday lending centers around the state has increased significantly. She also railed against amendments passed in committee that will allow payday lenders to use “installment loans” and charge interest rates in excess of 600 percent.

A press release from Sen. Davis is here, and you can see here and here for some more background.. It must be noted that consumer groups supported passage of these bills, which as a half-a-loaf guy I do understand. My fear in this case is that these inadequate solutions will be seen has having “done something to solve the problem” and make it harder to get any momentum to take the necessary next steps on reform. As with everything else, it’s going to have to start with a better Legislature before any real work can get done.

Texas blog roundup for the week of May 23

The entire membership of the Texas Progressive Alliance was actually raptured this past weekend, but thanks to our foresight and the scheduling capabilities of our blogging software we were able to put together a weekly roundup for you anyway. Because that’s the kind of bloggers we are.


Senate Dems block “sanctuary cities” bill

They did it as they said they would.

The state’s contentious sanctuary cities bill failed to move out of the Senate late Tuesday — a move some senators said effectively killed one of the most controversial measures the Texas Legislature has considered this session.

As late as 11 p.m., an aide to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said the Senate leader was still intent on bringing up the matter for a vote. (The Senate debates bills on the floor in the order they come in. Going out of order requires a two-thirds vote.)

But Republicans’ efforts were unsuccessful on Tuesday. Democratic senators stayed true to their word to block the bill — an item designated by Gov. Rick Perry as an emergency piece of legislation — by voting along party lines to keep the bill from making it to the floor.

“You know, it was a party-line vote,” said state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, who sponsored the bill in the upper chamber. The bill, HB 12 by state Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, would prohibit cities, counties and other governmental entities or special districts from adopting policies that prevent law enforcement from asking persons lawfully detained or arrested if they are in the country legally.

Yes, it was a party-line vote. There have been a lot of those this session, more in the House than in the Senate but still a lot, thanks to the extremely partisan agenda that Rick Perry and the Republicans in the Lege have pursued. We deserved some clarity about who stands for what, and I’m glad we got it. As always, nothing is truly dead until sine die, and there’s always the chance Rick Perry could call a special session for this, or add it to the call for a special on something else like school finance, but I’ll take it for now, and I’ll be more than happy to continue this conversation next November. Postcards, Somos Tejanos, and Stace have more.

If fixing the streets is easy, then tell us how to do it

Lisa Gray writes about a guy who thinks Houston’s streets could be much more user friendly if only we tried a little harder to make them be.

“Houston’s streets behave like alleys,” Nathan Norris shouted to the 20 or so people who followed him like ducklings, single file, on Jackson Hill Street’s skinny sidewalk.

Norris is a professional urban scold, a consultant for the town-planning firm Placemakers, who travels the country telling developers, neighborhood groups and cities what they can do to improve their street life.

He gestured, disgusted, at what he saw on Jackson Hill — a prosperous-looking residential street. It’s part of fast-growing Super Neighborhood 22, the area around Washington Avenue’s clubs and restaurants.

But Jackson Hill is not a street where you want to linger.


“I have traveled far and wide, and I have never run across a city that has as much unmet potential as Houston,” Norris wrote. “And the funny thing is that it would take such a minor change for Houston to reach its potential.

“Imagine New York, Chicago or L.A. trying to undo its business-unfriendly culture. That is not going to happen anytime soon. Dallas and Austin are not going to grow a port.

“But Houston could simply tweak some minor functional design regulations, and the developers would start building beautiful places that could provide Houston a vibrancy and hipness that would attract the next generation of leading professionals.”

I like what he’s saying, but I have two simple questions: What exactly are the simple tweaks that need to be done to make Houston’s streets better? And how do they affect existing streets where there’s unlikely to be much new housing construction?

Documenting the problem is easy enough, and Gray quotes Norris at length: Skinny sidewalks (where they exist at all), lack of trees, and utility pole obstruction. I figure a picture is worth a thousand words, so here are a few I snapped on Jackson Hill the other day.

Where ya gonna walk?

That’s a block south of Washington at the corner of Jackson Hill and Lilian Street; a parking lot for Patrenella’s is right behind where I’m standing. Talk about useless – anyone walking this way will have to take the street, which could be dangerous that close to a busy road like Washington. There were plenty of other examples, all on the same (east) side of the street, or utility poles getting in the way.


More on that Rebuild Houston push poll

Remember that push poll on Rebuild Houston? The results are out and they’re pretty much what you’d expect.

A state district judge could decide this week whether to hold a trial on the validity of November’s election in which voters approved a new pay-as-you-go program for improving Houston’s drainage.

Opponents say voters were misled about Proposition 1, that they did not know how it would hit them in the wallet. The city attorney said that information was available in newspaper advertisements, media coverage, campaign mailers and on the city’s website.

The opponents also released a poll they say shows Houstonians would have rejected the drainage fee proposition had they known more about it.


“What has now been implemented by the city is not what the voters voted on,” former county tax assessor and drainage fee opponent Paul Bettencourt said. “If the public had known any word about a dollar sign in the referendum, it wouldn’t have passed.”

Opponents of the fee financed the poll of 502 people who voted in the November election.

Asked if they would have voted for Proposition 1 had they known the City Council would grant exemptions to certain institutions, leaving others to pay the entire assessment, 65 percent of respondents said no, according to the poll results.

“If the ballot language had some real meat in it like (top) rate and everything else, this issue would have gone down long before we had to split hairs on exemptions,” Bettencourt said.

The irony of this, of course, is that Bettencourt has been at the forefront of arguing that the churches should be made exempt from the drainage fee, but even after getting what they wanted he and his fellow sore winners are still working to undermine a valid election result by any means possible. Hey, if you want to make this an argument that Council should reconsider exempting the churches, which is something I never wanted them to do in the first place, go for it. As someone who was a respondent to this push poll and who seriously thought about answering No to that question even though I knew what the pollsters were doing with it, I don’t see how this advances their argument. It’s just more disinformation from people who just aren’t interested in dealing with Houston’s flooding issues. Hair Balls has more.

Oh, and by the way, Bettencourt’s lawsuit against the city was dismissed on a motion for summary judgment, meaning that it was such a meritless suit it wasn’t worth wasting anyone’s time on it. Good thing for Bettencourt this happened before the new loser pays law kicks in. Here’s a statement from Mayor Parker about the ruling:

“This is yet another frivolous lawsuit that has cost taxpayers money at a time when the City can least afford it.

Last fall’s ballot language clearly indicated that Prop 1 was an initiative aimed at fixing Houston’s drainage problem. I hope this ruling answers any lingering questions raised about the voters’ decision to implement this solution.”

Sensible people, yes. Losers like Paul Bettencourt, no.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story about the suit being dismissed. Expect an appeal to be filed shortly.