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June 6th, 2013:

Who will be on the Ten Best and Ten Worst lists?

The Trib starts the speculation.

Texas Monthly‘s list of the best and worst legislators of the 83rd session doesn’t come out until June 12, but why should Paul Burka and his colleagues have all the fun? Use this interactive to select your own personal best and worst list. Click or drag to put up to 10 House and/or Senate members in each column, then hit the button at the bottom of the page to submit your choices. You’ll be able to share your picks on Facebook and Twitter, and our leaderboard will aggregate everyone’s selections so you can see how yours stack up against theirs. We’ll have the final results after voting ends at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

Voting for their list is now over, and a look at the leaderboard suggests to me that most of it was based on who the voters themselves like or dislike. The way Burka operates is pretty straightforward: He favors those who get things done and disfavors those who fail to get things done or get in the way of getting things done. He prefers good policy, to be sure, but ultimately this is about effectiveness and collaboration. I think after all these years I have a decent idea of the qualities he looks for in a Best or Worst member, and so here are my predictions about who will appear on his lists. Note that these are not necessarily the choices I would make if I were in charge of compiling these lists – I’d be much more about who worked the hardest for and against the greater good as I see it – but merely my guesses as to what Burka will say. By all means, feel free to chime in with your own prognostications, it’s more fun that way.

My guesses for the Ten Worst list

I will be shocked if Rep. Van Taylor, possibly the least popular member of either chamber, is not on the Worst list. He’s everything the Worst list is about – petty, rigid, obstructive, and so forth. Basically, he Does Not Play Well With Others, and that’s a sterling qualification for Worstness.

I will also be shocked if Sen. Joan Huffman is not on the list. Patricia Kilday Hart, who used to be Burka’s wingwoman on the Best & Worst lists, could easily be writing the entry for Huffman here:

* When exonerated inmates and their families appealed to the Texas Legislature to create an Innocence Commission, the last thing they expected was a lecture. But that’s what they got, courtesy of Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston. Huffman, a former judge and prosecutor, hijacked a committee hearing for a 10-minute peevish denunciation of the proposal as “second-guessing” prosecutors. Then she announced there was nothing anyone could say to change her mind. Waiting to testify was Cory Sessions, whose brother, Tim Cole, spent 14 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit, before dying of an asthma attack. According to the Innocence Project, Texas has had more total exonerations (117) and DNA exonerations (48) than any other state in the country.

* Then, late Friday, Huffman chaired a conference committee that gutted a tough ethics bill that would have required lawmakers’ personal financial statements to be available online, and include disclosures of any family members’ income received from doing business with government entities. Craig McDonald, executive director of Texans for Public Justice, called the conference committee’s decisions “a strategic assault on transparency.”

Again, these are textbook examples of Worstness in action. If Huffman isn’t on the list, the list has no meaning.

Those two are crystal clear. After that it gets murky. I’m guessing Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, for being generally ineffective at his job since at least 2007 and for trying to compensate for his ineptness by trying to channel Ted Cruz; Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, who has every right to be aggrieved by Sen. Huffman’s treatment of the Innocence Commission bill but whose vengeance spree against Huffman resulted in the death of some non-controversial legislation; Rep. Drew Springer, for being obsessively meddlesome; Rep. Tom Craddick for his conflict of interest defense of the status quo at the Railroad Commission; and Rep. David Simpson, who was completely ineffective in his attempts to be obstructive. While I think there’s a case for their inclusion, and I say this as someone who likes Rep. McClendon and shares her frustration with Sen. Huffman, I will not be surprised by the inclusion or omission of any of them. Obviously, there will be others, as I’ve only suggested six names. These are the ones that stand out to me; I suspect there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff that may affect the list that I’m not advised about.

My guesses for the Ten Best list

I think the strongest case can be made for the three key players in the budget deal – Sen. Tommy Williams, Rep. Jim Pitts, and Rep. Sylvester Turner. Williams and Pitts had a Herculean task navigating the budget through a minefield of competing interests and outside saboteurs. Budgeting is never easy, but in some ways it was more challenging this year with a surplus than last year with a deficit, since the ideologues who didn’t want to restore any of the cuts had to be beaten back, and some of the things that needed doing such as the SWIFT fund, required supermajorities. They did about as good a job of at least mollifying the people who wanted to get something productive done as you could ask for. Turner held the Democratic caucus together in holding out for the original deal they thought they were getting to restore much of the money that had been cut from public education even as they were threatened with a special session (you can now see why they didn’t cower at that threat), and he cut a deal on the System Benefit Fund that worked for both himself and Williams. In terms of Getting Things Done, these three certainly stood out.

For his handling of education bills, and for ensuring that vouchers were dead before they could get off the ground, I expect Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock to be included as a Best. It’ll be interesting to see how Burka deals with Aycock’s Senate counterpart, Sen. Dan Patrick, who did accomplish quite a bit with his charter school bill, and who was a team player on the bike trails bill, but who nonetheless made a spectacle of himself over vouchers, going so far as to imply that it was a civil rights issue. You can make a case for Patrick on both lists; I suspect Burka will note him in a sidebar but not include him on either.

Sens. Rodney Ellis and Robert Duncan deserve consideration for the discovery bill, while Ellis was his usual eloquent self on the matter of sunsetting tax breaks and Duncan shepherded potentially divisive bills on the Teacher Retirement System and Employee Retirement System in a way that was fiscally responsible and endorsed by the employees in question.

You know I’m no fan of hers, but Rep. Sarah Davis, along with Rep. Donna Howard, brokered a deal to restore much of the cuts made to family planning funds from 2011. Whether Davis herself helped her Republican colleagues come to the realization that sex is a leading cause of pregnancy or they figured it out on their own I can’t say, but this was a good accomplishment and I will not be surprised if Burka rewards Davis (and possibly but less likely Howard) for it.

These are the names that stand out to me. Again, there are surely others whose merits are less clear to me, but I feel comfortable putting forth these names as likely candidates. Who do you foresee gaining this biennial notoriety? Leave your own guesses and let us know.

So where does the school finance lawsuit stand?

Though Judge John Dietz issued a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs in the school finance lawsuit back in February, he still hasn’t written his full decision yet. That’s because he wanted to see what the Legislature did this session, so he could take it into account in his opinion. Well, the session is over and barring a veto or two, we know what we’ve gotten. How will that affect what Judge Dietz has to say? Probably not that much.

[W]ill a $3.4 billion increase in funding and a sharp reduction in high-stakes testing be enough to sway Dietz and ultimately the Texas Supreme Court?

Closing the chasm between districts may help with the issue of equity. The second issue, adequacy, is hotly contested, as education groups and others note that funding is, at best, where it was four years ago. And lawmakers did little to address the third major component of the case, the ruling that districts are locked into what is essentially an illegal statewide property tax.

Legislative leaders are nonetheless optimistic, while the plaintiff school districts see only a small impact.

“This should influence the final decision that Judge Dietz is going to write,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston. “With the combination of the reduction in STAAR testing and this infusion of cash into our schools, I believe the judge needs to revisit the issue. At the least, it could mean that the state may want to ask to reopen the case.”

In addition to the extra $3.4 billion in the coming two years — which erased a good chunk of the $5.4 billion funding reduction over the past two years — lawmakers also slashed the number of high school end-of-course tests required for graduation.

Instead of 15 exams, students will now have to pass just five — and the tougher tests like chemistry, physics, Algebra II and English III have been jettisoned. The testing requirements were a prominent part of the lawsuit against the state.

Attorney David Thompson, who represents Dallas, Fort Worth and dozens of other school districts, said the Legislature fell far short of what is needed to get the state out of its legal troubles.

“What they did this session was very significant and commendable,” he said, referring to the funding boost. “But you have to remember, it doesn’t even restore what was cut in 2011, not to mention increased costs for schools in the two years since then.”

[…]

David Hinojosa of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, one of the plaintiff lawyers in the school finance case, said a major problem is that the state hasn’t responded to the needs of lower-income and limited-English students, who cost more to educate.

“All the money that was taken out of the system in 2011 still hasn’t been put back in,” such as funding for the remedial programs that targeted low-achieving students, he noted.

Hinojosa agreed that steering most of the new money to lower- and medium-wealth school districts helps the state’s position on equal funding.

“This is the first time I have seen the Legislature react to its school finance shortcomings without being ordered to do it by the Supreme Court,” said Hinojosa, a veteran of two long-running school finance court fights in Texas.

Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, who proposed the original plan to eliminate funding gaps between districts, said the decision “will go a long way” in resolving the argument that the system is inequitable.

“Our lower-wealth districts will be getting a lot more and our higher-wealth districts won’t be getting much at all,” Deuell said. “That has been one of the primary issues in the lawsuit.”

But that still leaves the other major arguments. And in his initial ruling, Dietz seemed most concerned about schools not having enough money to properly educate all students and meet rigorous state standards.

The judge’s point was driven home in the National Education Association’s annual comparison of school spending this spring, which showed that Texas had slipped to 49th among the 50 states and District of Columbia in spending per pupil.

That’s a key point to consider. One of the plaintiffs’ arguments was that the Legislature had increased standards and curriculum requirements on school districts, but had not provided the means to pay for them. The Lege did restore some, though not all, of the funding they cut in 2011, but their response to the standards argument was to reduce the number of tests that students must take, though Rick Perry hasn’t signed those bills yet. Even if he does sign these bills, it’s an interesting question as to whether that was the better approach.

The state will get a chance to make that argument before Judge Dietz writes his ruling.

In a hearing in Dietz’s courtroom Wednesday, lawyers for both the districts and the state said that evidence should be updated following a legislative session in which Texas lawmakers made significant changes to public education policy. The judge asked all parties to return June 19 to present arguments over what the scope of those new hearings should be — including what issues they should cover and logistical questions, like limitations on discovery and other procedural rules.

Dietz warned lawyers against looking at the hearings as “a chance to clean up or make stronger” their arguments during the trial.

“I really think that the consideration is, was there a material change in the circumstances, was there a substantial change in circumstances by reason of” the most recent Legislature, he said.

[…]

On Wednesday, Dietz said he was still reviewing and making notes on a “densely packed,” 285-page written opinion, which he has not released and will once again be updated to include the results of the upcoming hearings.

After the hearing, Mark Trachtenberg, a lawyer for a group of school districts in the case, said he did not expect the legislative changes — one of which reduces the end-of-course exams that students must take to graduate — to substantially affect the judge’s ruling in favor of the school districts. He said new hearings were necessary to make sure that when the lawsuit reaches the state’s Supreme Court, justices there could issue a decision based on current circumstances.

Note that the briefing deadline is after the sign-or-veto deadline for Rick Perry; the fact that Perry may scotch the extra funding given to schools this year was brought up by the plaintiffs’ lawyers. My guess is that Judge Dietz will still opine that the Legislature has fallen short in many areas. Most school districts still have very little or no leeway in setting property tax rates. Equity is still an issue, and it’s hard to see how adequacy can have been achieved when funding levels are still down from four years ago. Dietz originally said that the Lege might need to come up with an addition $2000 per student per year. That number may be lower now after the regular session, but not by much. See here and here for some background, and EoW, the TSTA blog, and the Trib have more.

Complaints filed against federal judge Edith Jones

This is a potential blockbuster.

Judge Edith Jones

A broad coalition of groups — including an agency funded by the Mexican government (the Mexican Capital Legal Assistance Program), various civil rights organizations, legal ethics experts, and law professors — filed the complaint against 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Edith Jones, who in October relinquished her title as “chief judge” of that court. The New Orleans-based court is one of the most conservative in the country and handles appeals from Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

The complaint alleges that at a speech on Feb. 20, 2013, to lawyers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law, Jones made statements that violated basic rules of judicial ethics, including the fundamental duty of impartiality.

Among her statements:

  • That certain “racial groups like African Americans and Hispanics are predisposed to crime,” are “’prone’ to commit acts of violence,” and get involved in more violent and “heinous” crimes than people of other ethnicities;
  • That Mexican nationals would prefer to be on death row in the United States rather than serving prison terms in Mexico, and it is an insult for the United States to look to the laws of other countries such as Mexico;
  • That Defendants’ claims of racism, innocence, arbitrariness, and violations of international law and treaties are really nothing more than “red herrings” used by opponents of capital punishment;
  • That claims of “mental retardation” by capital defendants disgust her, and the fact such persons were convicted of a capital crime is itself sufficient to prove they are not in fact “mentally retarded”; and
  • That the imposition of a death sentence provides a positive service to capital-case defendants because defendants are likely to make peace with God only in the moment before their imminent execution.

The Trib has links to the complaint and the affidavits. Kos notes that according to the complaint, Jones “also made prejudicial remarks on cases that have yet to wind their way through the lower courts, cases in which she may have a say during any appeals”, which certainly sounds problematic to me. BOR points out that Jones is hardly a stranger to controversy. Having said all that, the group that sponsored her talk has come to Jones’ defense, so the matter is far from settled. I look forward to seeing how this plays out. The Fifth Circuit is in dire need of a makeover, and if it begins with President Obama getting to name a replacement for Judge Edith Jones, that would be all kinds of awesome.

Texas blog roundup for the week of June 3

The thoughts and prayers of the Texas Progressive Alliance are with the families and friends of the Houston Fire Department as we bring you this week’s roundup.

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