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April 25th, 2013:

Senate officially taps the Rainy Day Fund

Well done.

BagOfMoney

Texas senators hammered out a sweeping deal to increase state funding for water and transportation projects and schools on Tuesday, tackling some of the thorniest issues of the legislative session all at once.

The senators voted 31-0 for Senate Joint Resolution 1, which would ask Texas voters to approve taking $5.7 billion out of the state’s Rainy Day Fund. Of that amount, $2.9 billion would go to transportation, $2 billion to water infrastructure projects and $800 million to public education.

“I woke up at 2:30 this morning worried about how I was going to get this bill out of the ditch,” Senate Finance Chair Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands and the bill’s author, said. “It’s a miracle.”

Senators also annonunced plans to allocate an extra $1.4 billion for schools that came about after the Comptroller’s office informed the senators that property valuations have come in higher than previously estimated. Put together, the Senate’s actions would restore $3.7 billion of the $5.4 billion in cuts to public education made in 2011, Williams said.

[…]

The measure passed Tuesday is significantly different than what Williams originally proposed. His original plan had no money for education. The $800 million in the package approved Tuesday includes $500 million in formula funding and $300 million in merit pay for teachers.

On transportation, Williams had wanted to spend $3.5 billion on a State Infrastructure Fund that would either loan out money to local communities for road projects or help them borrow money more cheaply to fund the projects. Williams said late Tuesday that a majority of Senators made clear to him they were not interested in a plan that increased public borrowing.

The measure approved Tuesday will put $2.9 billion directly into the state highway fund, which the Texas Department of Transportation will use instead of issuing that much in bond debt. That will save the agency about $6 billion over the next 30 years in avoided debt service costs, Williams said.

All things considered, not too bad. I prefer this way of using the RDF for transportation, and if the Senate water plan emphasized conservation in the same way as the House plan, it’s all to the good. There will still be plenty of money left in the RDF after these expenditures, and the way the energy business is going these days, it’ll fill back up soon enough. Comptroller Susan Combs has endorsed the idea. The best part of all this is that as a joint resolution, it doesn’t need Rick Perry’s signature, just 100 votes in the House. Of course, that could be a heavy lift, but if the likes of Patrick, Birdwell, Campbell, Paxton, et al can vote for this, there’s no reason why the House teabaggers can’t as well. A statement from Sen. Jose Rodriguez on the passage of SJR1 is here, and the Observer has more.

Medicaid “expansion” bill passes out of House committee

Forgive me for tempering my excitement about this, but it’s not that much to be excited about.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Despite opposition from conservative Republicans, the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday advanced a proposal that would reform Medicaid by allowing the state to request a block grant from the federal government and expand coverage to low-income Texans.

“This is not an expansion of Medicaid — this is the creation of a new program that leverages our private sector,” said Rep. John Zerwas, R-Simonton, the author of House Bill 3791. Members of Appropriations voted 15 to 9 to move the legislation out of committee and continue debate on the House floor.

[…]

The revised bill has four parts: It outlines what the block grant would look like; identifies Medicaid reforms that Texas could implement already, such as cost-sharing requirements and co-payments; sets up a separate program to potentially draw down federal financing to help individuals at or below 133 percent of the poverty level find private market coverage; and sets up an oversight committee for both programs.

Trail Blazers fills in some details.

[HB 3791] would, among other things, attempt to appease hospital leaders and urban county judges and commissioners who are irate over state GOP leaders’ apparent determination to walk away from about $100 billion in additional federal funds that Texas could draw down over the next decade. The money would flow to Texas if it expands Medicaid to more adults — a move that would pull forward to government coverage more than 400,000 poor children who are already eligible but haven’t enrolled. Texas would have to put up just more than $15 billion of its money through 2023.

[…]

The bill by Zerwas, though, would at least force Team Perry to go through the motions [of negotiating with the Obama administration]. Governors in other states have reached some deals with federal Medicaid czars, some involving private insurance subsidies as an alternative to traditional Medicaid.

Zerwas’ measure says any Texas-specific premium assistance plan must include features near and dear to conservative lawmakers’ hearts. The deal must include outcomes-based provider reimbursements, “meaningful cost sharing requirements and wellness initiatives,” tailored benefits, nudges for existing Medicaid recipients to take the premium subsidies and for people to accept employer-offered coverage — and of course, health savings accounts, which allow patients to spend from a pool of dollars that rolls over at the end of the year and they keep.

“I understand the kind of political radioactivity around this particular bill,” Zerwas told colleagues. “But I … am hearing and many of us are hearing especially from our county and local governments that this would have a profound effect not only on the provision of care [but] some of the collateral effects are its potential to reduce property tax rates” charged by county hospital districts, such as one in Dallas County that supports Parkland Memorial Hospital, he said.

Rep. Stefani Carter, R-Dallas, praised Zerwas’ hard work but said she had to vote no because his bill needs more vetting. Carter questioned how many of her constituents would benefit.

Democrats weren’t thrilled by the laundry list of conservative “health care reforms” in the bill but went along.

“Cautiously, yes,” said Rep. Helen Giddings, D-Dallas, announcing her vote.

What Rep. Giddings says. As with the Arkansas option, this is a Rube Goldberg monster whose complexity is a direct result of Republican intransigence to the obvious solution. It’s a kluge on top of a kluge that starts out by wishing for a pony – block grants – then resigns itself to coming up with something that won’t require the state to give up on billions in funding. It’s still better than nothing, which once again gives you an idea of how awful the status quo is. Better Texas has more.

On a side note, the House also instructed conference committee members to not expand Medicaid in the budget reconciliation negotiations. Which they couldn’t do anyway, since you can’t use the budget to make new law, but never mind that. The Republicans in the Legislature are wise to Barack Obama and his sneaky tricks, yes they are. Whatever happens from this point, it needs to happen quickly because time is running short in the session. The issue could be picked up again in a special session, but only if Rick Perry wants that to happen. Getting it done now is the best bet by far.

Legislative quick hits

This is the time of the session where there’s lots happening, and there isn’t always the time or space to stay on top of it all. So here are a few quick updates on things that are happening in an attempt to at least not be too far behind.

A bill to give Tesla Motors an opportunity to operate in Texas moves out of committee in the House.

The House Business and Industry Committee advanced a bill on Tuesday that would allow Tesla Motors to circumvent the state’s franchise dealer system and sell cars directly to Texans, giving a shot in the arm to the company’s efforts to operate in the state.

Tesla says an exemption from the franchise dealer system is the only way the company can operate successfully in Texas, but the owners of state auto dealer franchises have objected, saying the effort weakens a business model that has been key to their success.

House Bill 3351, by state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, was replaced by a committee substitute that offered auto dealers another layer of protection: If Tesla ever sells more than 5,000 cars a year in the state, it will become subject to existing regulation and must start to franchise its operations.

With Tesla projecting sales of only a few hundred cars a year in the state, the bill’s supporters, including Diarmuid O’Connell, the vice president of business development for Tesla motors, called this a workable approach.

“This would give us the space we need to introduce our technology in the state,” he said.

See here for the background. I’m rooting for this one.

A bill to allow online voter registration has passed the Senate.

[Tuesday] afternoon, the Texas senate approved SB 315, a bill proposed by State Sen. Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio) to allow holders of unexpired Texas driver’s licenses or state-issued IDs to register to vote online.

Currently, registered voters in Texas may change their addresses online if they move within the same county but must complete a paper application if they are registering to vote for the first time or have moved to a different county.

In testimony on the proposed bill, election administrators said the legislation would both save significant money by reducing the need to manually enter information and eliminate transcription mistakes that happen with the current process.

The version of the bill approved by the Texas senate differs slightly from the original filed version in that the passed bill no longer requires voters to use the address listed on their license or ID as their voter registration address.

A similar bill – HB 313 – by State Rep. Mark Strama (D-Austin) is currently pending in the state house.

See here for the background. Another bill I’m rooting for. BOR has more.

Sen. Dan Patrick’s charter school expansion bill had its hearing in the House

Lawmakers didn’t let on too much of their feelings about the bill—but Killeen Republican Jimmy Don Aycock, chair of the House Public Education Committee, said he didn’t consider the bill watered-down, because it allows the state’s charter network to grow. Charter school officials seemed to agree.

The bill still gives charter schools priority access to unused public school facilities, which Kathleen Zimmerman, executive director of NYOS Charter School, said is the bill’s most important improvement. Zimmerman said she has to give up her office for tutoring sessions because unlike public schools, charters don’t get facilities funding.

Under the Senate version, the education commissioner would revoke charters of schools that performed poorly in three out of five years.

Zimmerman said she didn’t focus on those higher standards because she wanted to highlight the positives. But, she said, “as a charter operator, I don’t want poor performing charters either.”

Rep. Alma Allen (D-Houston) said she’s concerned that charters may have a hard time getting loans because some banks want them to plan to be open for more than five years.

Charles Pulliam, chief development officer of Life School charter in Dallas, said that prospect would undermine the flexibility charters need to test out innovative education strategies.

“It scares me a little,” Pulliam said. “To have one blanket way of determining if they are successful is a mistake.”

The bill is SB 2, and it easily passed the Senate after adding a bunch of mostly Democratic amendments. It is pending in the House Public Ed committee.

Speaking of charter schools, a bill to limit the role ex-SBOE members can play at one has advanced.

A measure to bar former State Board of Education members from taking a job at a charter school or related foundation within two years of serving on the board is headed to the full Senate.

Senate Bill 1725 by state Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, is intended to close the revolving door between the SBOE and charter schools.

An amendment by Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, D-San Antonio, would allow former board members to take a job at a charter school within the two-year period so long as that member did not vote to create that particular school.

The Senate Education Committee passed the bill 6-3 late Tuesday.

The three nays all came from Republicans, which suggests this bill could have problems getting any farther.

The Lege has been trying to change the name of the Railroad Commission to something more reflective of reality for as long as I can remember. They’re still trying, and working on some other reforms as well.

The bill, SB 212 by State Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, embodies a previous Sunset review of the Railroad Commission that didn’t pass in the last legislative session that would forbid certain campaign contributions. For instance, commissioners could not accept donations from a party involved in a contested case hearing. It would also limit campaign contributions to the 17 months before an election and 30 days after. Commissioners are elected to six-year terms.

A contested case hearing is the way citizens protest against an oil and gas company permit or action.

Barry Smitherman, Chairman of the Railroad Commission, said during testimony that the campaign restrictions were “tricky” because the commissioner position is elected statewide, the state is big, travel is necessary and commissioners must raise money.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who sits on the committee, said the Sunset Commission had thought hard about how to put reasonable limits on the campaign financing.

“Sitting there for a six-year term, being able to raise unlimited amounts of money from the industry that they regulate, there clearly is a perception problem,” said Ellis.

The Railroad Commission should be subject to restrictions that differ from other statewide elected officials, like senators and representatives, because the nature of the commission is unique, Nichols said, because the commissioners have six-year terms, they regulate a specific industry and they set rates.

Similar Sunset legislation for the commission originating in the House, HB 2166 by State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, recently passed out of committee, but largely stripped of the campaign and ethics reform, according to Texas Energy Report. That bill could end up competing with the Senate bill discussed Tuesday.

[…]

No one testified specifically against the name-change provision. [Commissioner Christi] Craddick suggested the more succinct Texas Energy Commission. State Sen. Glen Hegar, R-Katy, who worked on the Sunset review that failed to pass in the last legislative session, also suggested a new name.

“I’d like to change it to Texas Department on Oil and Gas because it sounds cool … TDOG,” Hegar said.

The official name in the bill is Texas Energy Resources Commission. But I like Sen. Hegar’s suggestion.

We close with two from the inbox. First, from Equality Texas:

Moments ago, the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence advanced House Bill 2403 by Rep. Mary González of El Paso on a committee vote of 5-3.

HB 2403 would remove existing inequity in Texas’ “Romeo & Juliet” Affirmative Defense law. The “Romeo & Juliet” Affirmative Defense is a logical approach to the reality that adolescents sometimes make sexual decisions that adults wish they had not made, but that adolescents have been making since the beginning of time.

Under current law, if teen sweethearts are of opposite sexes, consensual intimate contact remains a matter between parents and their children. However, the “Romeo & Juliet” Affirmative Defense is not currently available to dating teens of the same gender. The state should not intrude on the right of parents to instill their values about sex into their children. Nor should the state interfere if teenage sweethearts make decisions that their parents believe are not what is best for them.

This needs to be a conversation between parents and their children. Not between parents, their children, an arresting officer, a prosecuting attorney, and a trial judge. That is why the “Romeo & Juliet” Affirmative Defense exists.

HB 2301 will ensure that it applies equally to straight & gay teens.

Today’s House committee action follows advancement of identical legislation by the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice. On April 9th, Senate Bill 1316 by Senator John Whitmire of Houston was advanced by the committee on a 4-1 vote. SB 1316 is on the Senate Intent Calendar for Tuesday, April 23, 2013.

See here for more. As far as I can tell, the full Senate has not taken up SB1316 as yet.

Last but not least, a non-good bill from Empower the Vote Texas:

HB 148 by Rep. Burkett is scheduled to be voted on by the full House tomorrow, April 25th. Please contact your State Representative and tell them to vote NO on this bill. If you are not sure who is your State Rep, you can use the “Who Represents Me” lookup tool. Emails addresses for all House members are firstname.lastname @ house.state.tx.us, however phone calls are much more effective.

Attached are the letter ETVT sent to all Representatives opposing this bill along with supporting documents. The original text of the bill as introduced, the new text of the committee substitute, witness list, and bill analysis can be found here.

A copy of the letter is here. The hearing is today, so we’ll see how it goes.

Texas blog roundup for the week of April 22

The thoughts and prayers of the Texas Progressive Alliance are with the people of Boston and West as we bring you this week’s roundup.

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