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June 3rd, 2013:

Equality Texas’ best and worst legislators for 2013

Two good lists to peruse while you wait for the Texas Monthly “Best and Worst” lists.

It was a good session for Equality Texas with a record 31 endorsed bills in our Legislative Agenda, including multiple pieces of legislation that were filed for the first time ever, bills that advanced out of committee for the first time, and two bills that have been sent to the Governor for signature.

Equally important as the filing and passage of endorsed legislation was the successful defeat of five bills/amendments that we opposed and worked to kill, including an amendment that would have defunded gender & sexuality centers, legislation targeting school districts that offer competitive insurance benefits, and an amendment allowing student organizations to ignore campus nondiscrimination policies.

Next week, we’ll be sending you a recap of the 83rd Session with more information on each of the endorsed bills that were advanced and the bad bills that were killed.

Today, we’d like to share with you our Legislative Report Card for the 83rd Session, including the best of the best and the worst of the worst.

Ratings of lawmakers are tricky. It is difficult, if not impossible, to include all the little things that happen behind the scenes, the influence of members on each other, or the true motivations or beliefs of individual representatives.

Still, it’s important to acknowledge the public actions of the people elected to represent us. In compiling this report card we considered public votes, authorship of pro- and anti-LGBT legislation, filing of resolutions acknowledging the LGBT community, and committee votes on issues affecting the LGBT community. Behind the scenes work and advocacy was not included.

So, how did your State Representative do in our ratings?

Here are our Best Members of the Texas House on LGBT issues.

Here are our Worst Members of the Texas House on LGBT issues.

Here is the Full Report Card for members of the Texas House.

There is certainly room for debate, particularly when something as complicated as this is reduced to a letter grade. We’d love to hear your opinion of the report card. How’d your representative do? Did we score them too harshly? Too favorably? Share this list with your friends and let’s have a conversation about how the people elected to represent us did over the last five months.

The Best and Worst lists have some amusing comments on them, so be sure to click over and read them. Here’s a description of how the scores and grades were calculated:

All votes are recorded as being either “For” the best interests of the LGBT community or “Against” the best interest of the LGBT community. In cases where a member recorded that their intended vote was different than the vote in the journal the members intention was used for scoring. Record floor votes for LGBT specific issues were given 20 points for “For” votes, votes on issues that disproportunately affect the LGBT community, but were not LGBT specific were given 10 points for “For” votes. A perfect voting record recieves 90 base points and a score of “A.” Bonus points were given for authorship of legislation, including amendments: for LGBT specific legislation: 6 points for primary author, 5 points for joint author and 4 points for co-author; for LGBT related legislation: 4 points for primary author, 3 points for joint author and 2 points for co-author. Authorship at any level of a congradulatory or memorial resolution that recognized the existance of the LGBT community recieved 1 bonus point. Equality Texas endorsed amendments to the budget that were withdrawn before being considered recieved 4 points. Authors of anti-LGBT legislation, including amendments, were given negative points as follows: -10 for primary author, -8 for joint author, -6 for co-author. Members who had the opportunity to vote on Equality Texas endorsed legislation in committee were awarded points; for votes on LGBT specific bills: 5 for “For” votes and -5 for “Against” votes; for LGBT related bills: 3 for “For” votes and -3 for “Against” votes. Members who scored in the “F” range, but who had at least one “for” vote on LGBT specific legislation were elevated to a D- rating. For some members, insufficent data was available to give a letter grade, those members were not graded.

See the accompanying spreadsheet for the full list of bills, amendments, resolutions, and votes. The high grade among Republicans was a C, achieved by three members: Reps. Sarah Davis, John Otto, and Diane Patrick. Three Rs received Ds, six got a D minus, and the rest of them failed. On the Dem side, there were three Bs, five Cs, two Ds, and the rest were A or A plus. I should note that on the six big votes, which amounted to 90 total points, a non-vote counted the same as an Against vote, which is to say both scored zero points. One non-vote was therefore enough to knock you down to a C, though you could make up points via authorship, committee votes, and what have you as noted above. While it is certainly important to show up, I might have rejigged the scoring to make an Against vote cost points, so as to distinguish between the two. It’s a minor quibble, and probably easier said than done, but that was the one thing that I didn’t quite like about this. Anyway, it’s a valuable resource, and it’s great to see the overwhelming majority of Dems on the right side of things here. It’s not that long ago that that would not have been the case.

Another petition filed against Lehmberg

The filer is a former colleague as well as a former opponent of Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg.

Rosemary Lehmberg

Rick Reed, who ran against Lehmberg in 2008 and is now a defense attorney in Austin, filed the petition with the district clerk’s office Wednesday. In all, it claims 16 counts of official misconduct ranging from coercion of a public servant to retaliation.

On Friday, one of Lehmberg’s attorneys said the petition appears to be another attempt to remove her on grounds that already have been rejected by a judge.

Her attorneys also have responded to a separate lawsuit seeking Lehmberg’s removal, asking the court to dismiss it and calling it unconstitutional, saying that the state has singled her out in a way it hasn’t male office-holders.

Reed’s petition was submitted under a state law that allows the removal of a district attorney on grounds of incompetency, official misconduct and intoxication on or off duty. He said Friday that he filed the petition in part because the already existing lawsuit to remove her from office only addresses intoxication.

[…]

Reed cites Lehmberg’s request for the sheriff throughout his petition, among other actions, as examples of her alleged official misconduct.

“She committed numerous criminal offenses when she was detained by deputies, and this is someone who is the chief law enforcement officer of Travis County,” he said.

[…]

The first petition was filed by Austin attorney Kerry O’Brien in April. O’Brien, a former assistant state attorney general, sought Lehmberg’s removal on grounds of intoxication, incompetency and misconduct. Judge Lora Livingston granted O’Brien’s request on intoxication grounds but denied his application for a citation issuance in the case on grounds of incompetency and misconduct.

Later that month, Travis County Attorney David Escamilla dismissed the lawsuit, which had procedural problems, but immediately refiled a new civil case with himself as the plaintiff.

Then on Tuesday, Austin resident Matt Murdock also filed a petition for Lehmberg’s removal, but he said a district court judge attached his case to Escamilla’s.

Reed’s petition is still pending.

Things had been a bit quiet in Lehmberg land lately. This was the first new news I’d seen since she was released from jail three weeks ago, though I can’t say I’d been paying especially close attention with all that had been going on in the Legislature. As with the other petitions, this one requires approval from a judge in order to proceed, and it may wind up being joined with the Escamilla lawsuit. What all this suggests to me is that the political heat on Lehmberg has simmered down a bit, but it has definitely not begun to cool off. She’s still very much in jeopardy. I think she’s more likely to survive now than she was when this all first blew up, but she’ll never be in the clear.

Transportation funding shouldn’t be intractable

As previously noted, Sens. Tommy Williams and Robert Nichols want to take another crack at finding additional funds for transportation. The problem, as always, is political

“Sooner or later, serious policy-makers have to take control,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said earlier this month. “I think they will, but I don’t know when.”

The latest, best hope is a bill filed Tuesday by Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, and Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, that would take excess oil production tax revenues and direct them at paying down the state’s road bond debt.

Williams estimated that could mean an additional $700 to $800 million annually for transportation.

[…]

To fund existing repair and improvement needs, the Texas Department of Transportation has estimated it needs an additional $4 billion for the two-year budget cycle.

“Major transportation funding is one of the things that, unfortunately, did not happen during the regular session,” Texas Association of Business president Bill Hammond, said. “Without these new projects we risk our economic edge in attracting new investment, jobs and business to this state.”

The state gasoline tax has remained unchanged at 20 cents for 22 years. Lawmakers came to Austin with some funding ideas, from tax increases to higher vehicle registration fees. None gained enough traction to overcome ideological opposition to anything that took money from Texans and gave it to the government.

I presume that last sentence is intended to capture the perspective of the rabid anti-spending crowd, but it’s so jarring that I can’t help but marvel at it. Would anyone characterize a visit to the grocery store as “taking money from Texans and giving it to Charles Butt and Randall Onstead”? If the need to pay for roads and road repair is that disconnected from the gas tax, then I don’t even know what to say. It is always amusing to see another helpless quote from Bill Hammond, as if he were an innocent victim of this breakdown in policy instead of an enabler of it. It’s the same dynamic as the anti-immigrant hysteria of the past couple of sessions that finally got tamped down this year after the politics of it became too untenable for the Republicans. It’s well within Bill Hammond’s power to support candidates in Republican primaries that will work to actually solve these problems, and to oppose the candidates that actively work against solving them. I’d be happy to suggest a few legislators to target in 2014 if that would be helpful to Hammond. This isn’t rocket science.

“I think we all know something is going to give,” said Carol Brace, director of the Center for Logistics and Transportation Policy at UH. “But I feel for them. They are struggling just as we all are to figure it out.”

Emmett said the biggest challenge is overcoming a segment of lawmakers who recognize the need for transportation spending, but oppose any proposal to raise the money. Part of their reluctance, he said, is fear they will get hammered in the next election for raising taxes or fees.

Well, I don’t feel for them, because even the Republicans that are trying to solve this problem in the Legislature have helped to make it so difficult to do by their own anti-tax and anti-spending rhetoric over the years. If we’d been properly maintaining the gas tax all this time and were coming to a point diminishing returns and were now engaged in a debate about how to transition from the gas tax to something that would be more sustainable for growth in the long term, that would be one thing. But everyone knows that the gas tax is still viable, and would largely take care of our transportation needs for years to come if we dealt with it. Hammond, for all his feigned cluelessness, put his finger right on the message to overcome this quagmire, that opposing any and all new revenues to fix the state’s transportation problems – and yes, this includes raising the gas tax and indexing it to the cost of construction – is anti-business. No one wants to be accused of that in a Republican primary. The Republicans created this dilemma for themselves, they can fix it for themselves.

There are limits to caffeination after all

No caffeinated gum for you.

Wrigley’s new caffeinated gum, Alert Energy Gum, only lasted a couple of weeks on the shelves of supermarkets, grocery stores and convenient stores after the FDA became concerned about the amount of caffeine each piece of gum offered.

With 40 milligrams of caffeine (equal to half a cup of coffee) in each piece, it’s no shock as to why the FDA was concerned, especially because we live in a world where energy drinks and coffee thrive. Although other gum companies have released their own caffeinated items, like Mentos’s Up2U Gum and Jolt’s energy gum, the FDA has become recently concerned with the amount of added caffeine in foods and drinks.

In fact, the main worry the FDA has about caffeinated beverages and foods is that most of the products are marketed to children, who shouldn’t be consuming energy drinks and coffee throughout the day. The FDA’s limit for caffeine consumed each day is 400 milligrams, the equivalent of four or five cups of coffee. This limit is set for adults, but the FDA discourages the consumption of caffeine or caffeinated items by children and youths.

Gum is an item consumed by people of all ages, so unlike alcohol, it isn’t blocked from being purchased by children or adolescents. In a statement from the FDA, Michael R. Taylor, the deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine at the agency says, “One pack of this gum is like having four cups of coffee in your pocket. Caffeine is even being added to jelly beans, marshmallows, sunflower seeds and other snacks for its stimulant effect.”

So after caffeinated Cracker Jacks, air, beer, soap, doughnuts, and potato chips, we have finally reached a bridge too far. You’ll just have to get juiced by other means. On the bright side, there’s a caffeinated toothbrush coming out soon, so the range of options continues to expand.