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Geanie Morrison

House passes its budget

The rites of spring in Texas: The start of baseball season, the first 90-degree day, and in odd-numbered years, the House Budget Amendment-Palooza.

The Texas House on Thursday night unanimously passed its proposed two-year, $246 billion state budget after members spent hours deliberating which tweaks to make to the massive spending plan.

The House’s proposed budget includes measures that would ban school vouchers, empty the governor’s economic development fund and cap some attorney general spending. But such amendments are not guaranteed to remain in the final spending plan. The proposal now heads back to the Senate, where the legislation will all but certainly then head to a conference committee for the two chambers to hash out their differences before it can be sent to the governor’s desk.

In a statement after Thursday’s vote, House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said the chamber passed “a balanced budget that keeps spending in check while addressing the multitude of challenges that our state experiences, especially those experienced over the past year.”

One of the more notable votes happened Thursday afternoon when state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, introduced an amendment that aimed to expand state and federal health care coverage for uninsured Texans. After a brief debate though, the amendment failed 68-80, with one Republican — state Rep. Lyle Larson of San Antonio — voting for it.

Later Thursday, House members also tackled another point of contention that’s emerged in recent weeks at the Legislature: What to do with tens of billions of dollars in federal funding for coronavirus relief. The chamber unanimously adopted an amendment by state Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, to require a special legislative session to appropriate billions in funds that may come in after the Legislature adjourns from its regular session in May.

Before the vote, Morrison said “it is clear … that our founding fathers intended for appropriations to be handled by the Texas Legislature.”

House members also signed off Thursday on a supplemental budget to cover expenses from the current budget. The vote on that legislation, House Bill 2, was also unanimous.

See here for a bit of background. One sign that the ground on which we fight the big culture wars these days has shifted is that I hadn’t given a single thought to school vouchers this session. That great bugaboo from the early to mid-2000’s has lost its luster as a divisive force. Even Dan Patrick had bigger fish to fry this session. I’m perfectly happy to give vouchers a kick in the nads every other year, but I do wish some of the newer culture war hot button issues were as beatable.

Of interest.

The Texas House moved Thursday to rein in Attorney General Ken Paxton’s spending on outside attorneys that are costing taxpayers up to $3,800 an hour.

A state budget amendment brought Thursday by Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, caps the amount that Paxton’s office can pay for outside legal expenses at $500 an hour. The amendment passed the House 73-64.

The House version of the budget, once finalized, will still need to be reconciled with the Senate’s version.

Paxton found himself in hot water with Texas lawmakers this budgeting cycle after he requested more than $43 million for an antitrust lawsuit he launched against Google and hired attorneys at a rate that could cost the state as much as $3,780 an hour for the most senior attorneys, according to their contract.

González, who is an attorney, said her bill is aimed at avoiding such costs in the future.

“Think about all the good we could do with that money,” she said. “How many lives could we improve by spending this money on public education or health care? While our indicted attorney general is dealing with scandal in his own agency, we as legislators need to ensure our constituents’ tax dollars are being used to help people, and not being wasted on exorbitant legal fees.”

During a tense hearing in February, the Texas Senate’s Finance Committee chastised Paxton for his spending on outside counsel in that suit. Paxton had argued that the lawyers were necessary because the case involves a specialized area of law, and the body ultimately did not slash his budget.

See here for some background on that. It’s not clear to me what effect this amendment would have, assuming it survives in the Senate and the conference committee. Maybe Paxton will still be able to pay those fancy outside lawyers as much as he agreed to pay them, they’ll just have to bill for more hours in order to be able to claim all of it. My guess is that this is a symbolic slap on the wrist, but I’ll be happy to be proven wrong.

Looks like (maybe) we have a Speaker

I give you Rep. Dade Phelan. May he not spontaneously combust in spectacular and self-inflicted fashion like a drummer for Spinal Tap the last Speaker.

Rep. Dade Phelan

State Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, announced Wednesday he has the votes needed to become the next speaker of the Texas House and soon after released a bipartisan list of 83 members supporting his candidacy. That number, should it hold, is more than enough votes for Phelan to win the gavel when the Legislature convenes in January.

But Phelan’s main competitor for the speakership, state Rep. Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin, indicated in a statement he was not backing down from the race and said the GOP caucus should meet per its bylaws to “vote to back a candidate … as soon as possible.”

The news comes hours after the GOP maintained its majority over the lower chamber, fending off a well-funded challenge from Democrats who had hoped to flip the House for the first time in nearly two decades.

“The race is over,” Phelan said at a noon press conference at the Texas Capitol, saying he has a “supermajority of the Republican caucus” and a “broad coalition of support” from Democrats. A candidate needs a majority of the 150-member chamber in order to win the gavel and preside over the House.

As election results came in Tuesday, the eight candidate field for speaker — four Democrats and four Republicans — seemed to consolidate into two camps: a group supporting Phelan and another backing Ashby. Both candidates had filed for the gavel in recent days as the race quickly escalated heading into Election Day.

On Tuesday night, one Republican in the race, state Rep. Geanie Morrison of Victoria, announced she was backing Ashby for the job. And on Wednesday morning, another Republican in the race, Chris Paddie of Marshall, announced he was supporting Phelan.

“Last night … was a very long, long process — and now it’s time to heal,” Phelan said at the press conference. “The work of the 150 members coming together to serve Texas begins today.”

There had been some Speaker-related news on Monday and even Tuesday, and I had prepped a post about it, which I knew would likely become obsolete as soon as we knew the House situation. And indeed, here we are. That draft is beneath the fold, if you’re interested. Needless to say, the next Legislature has a long to-do list in front of it, and a Speaker who can help get the main things done in a reasonable way will be welcomed by the members. One who can also tell Dan Patrick to go pound sand and who will never commit the classic blunder of saying stupid stuff to Michael Quinn Sullivan, especially when there might be a recorder in operation, would be nice. Good luck to Rep. Phelan if he is indeed the presumptive Speaker. As noted in the story, Rep. Ashby, who has now withdrawn from the race and backed Rep. Morrison, does not see this as being over. Reform Austin, which notes that three of the four Democrats who had filed for Speaker are on that letter Phelan released, has more.

(more…)

We need an official Speaker candidate tracker

We’re up to five now, and we’re likely not done yet.

Rep. Trent Ashby

State Reps. Trent Ashby of Lufkin, Chris Paddie of Marshall and John Cyrier of Lockhart join two Democrats in seeking the gavel: Senfronia Thompson of Houston and Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio. More candidates are expected to file, perhaps after the Nov. 3 election once it’s clear which party will be in control of the chamber.

In statements, both Ashby and Cyrier pointed to the legislative session beginning in January — and the challenges state lawmakers will all but certainly have to tackle — to help make their pitch for why they’re the best candidate for the job.

“Given the collective challenges we will face in upcoming legislative session, as we continue our battle with COVID-19 and work to balance a budget despite revenue challenges, it is critically important that the next Speaker fosters the trust and cooperation necessary to overcome these challenges and deliver the results that all Texans expect and deserve,” Ashby, who has served in the House since 2013, said.

Cyrier, who has served in the House since 2015, said the session “will be a demonstration of Texans’ resilience.”

“My top priority as speaker will be to work with all members of the House and build consensus during what is sure to be a challenging session,” Cyrier said.

Paddie, who has served in the lower chamber since 2013, did not immediately release a statement about his bid.

As noted, Reps. Senfronia Thompson and Trey Martinez Fischer are already in. None of the three Republicans were among the crowd that had made a move towards running for Speaker before the last session; five of those seven will be in the 2021 Lege, so there is definitely the possibility of a larger field. I should note that Rep. Thompson picked up the endorsements of her fellow Harris County Democratic legislators, and also of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, thus giving her the most supporters for now, though still far from a majority.

We’ll have a much better idea of how this may shake out once we know how many Ds and how many Rs there will be. And as a reminder: Right after the election is when some number of members announce their intent to step down, thus necessitating a special election to replace them. Rep. Drew Spinger is in the runoff for SD30, scheduled for December 19, so his seat may become vacant right before the opening gavel as well. I say this all because the number we have on November 4 may be different than the number we have on January 4, and that could have a real effect on who has enough votes to actually become Speaker. The potential for chaos, and maybe even some shenanigans, is quite high. The Lege is never more entertaining when those things are true.

UPDATE: And now there are six:

Possibly by the time you read this, there will be more announced candidates. You see what I mean when I say we need a tracker.

UPDATE: And now there are seven:

All members of the House that are not running for Speaker, please raise your hand.

Speaker’s race? What Speaker’s race?

Just a reminder that one of the three most powerful political offices in the state is on the ballot this November, even if it’s largely invisible to us.

Found on the Twitters

State Rep. Senfronia Thompson fielded a question last week that’s been on the minds of many members of the Texas House: If her party wins control of the lower chamber in November, will she be a candidate for speaker?

“Well, if I can get James Frank’s support, I probably will be,” the Houston Democrat said with a chuckle during a Texas Tribune Festival panel, referring to her Republican colleague also on the screen.

Frank responded with a laugh of his own: “I’m pretty sure if Democrats take over in November … that she’ll be a candidate.”

The exchange, though lighthearted, was indicative of how uncertain the 150-member chamber is ahead of a legislative session that lawmakers say will be their toughest in years. With the pending retirement of House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, the lower chamber knows someone new will be in charge in January — but not a single member has so far declared their candidacy to seek the gavel.

[…]

Of course, members could break ranks and file their candidacy for speaker with the Texas Ethics Commission before November. Members will formally elect a new speaker on the first day of the regular session in January — and whoever ends up taking the gavel will be one of the state’s most consequential leaders as the Legislature responds to the coronavirus pandemic, grapples with billions of dollars in shortfalls to the state budget and undergoes a once-in-a-decade redistricting cycle.

Members are already weighing who would be a viable candidate if the margin is more narrow than the 83-67 partisan split from the 2019 legislative session. Some think that’s more likely than the chamber flipping entirely. References to the 2008 elections — and the 76-74 split it produced — came up repeatedly in conversations with members, with many suggesting the chamber’s next speaker will need supporters from both parties to win the gavel.

In the wake of that 2008 election, then-state Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, won the speaker’s race after most of the chamber’s Democrats and some Republicans coalesced around his bid. After Straus announced his retirement in 2017, a more hardline conservative faction of Republicans helped push a change to the groups’s bylaws to select a speaker within the caucus and then vote as a bloc on the floor. Democrats also tried to rally their ranks to commit to voting for a candidate as a bloc, though neither party had an enforcement mechanism.

None of those elements have come up in any sort of tangible way so far this year, which some members chalk up again to the uncertainty surrounding the November election and the possibility that the margin will be more narrow than in 2019.

Jim Dunnam, a former House member from Waco who served in the lower chamber from 1997 to 2011, said it would be presumptuous for members to start committing to speaker candidates before they have even won reelection, especially given predictions that November will yield tight results.

Dunnam, who at one point also chaired the House Democratic Caucus, also waved off the notion of one party exclusively electing a speaker candidate.

“The speaker is supposed to be the speaker of the House,” he said, “not the speaker of one caucus.”

[…]

In conversations with nearly two dozen members, staffers and lobbyists — nearly all of whom declined to be named due to the sensitive nature of internal House politics — several GOP and Democratic names were mentioned repeatedly as members to keep an eye on as the speaker’s race develops.

On the Republican side: Four Price of Amarillo; Trent Ashby of Lufkin; Chris Paddie of Marshall; Dade Phelan of Beaumont; Geanie Morrison of Victoria; Tom Craddick of Midland, the longest-serving House member and a former speaker; Craig Goldman of Fort Worth; Frank of Wichita Falls and Matt Krause of Fort Worth. On the Democratic side: Joe Moody of El Paso, the House speaker pro tempore; Rafael Anchia of Dallas; Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio; Thompson; Turner, the caucus chair; Oscar Longoria of Mission and Donna Howard of Austin.

Each candidate’s chances at winning the gavel are influenced by the partisan breakdowns in the House. GOP members have suggested that if Republicans pick up a couple of seats and increase their majority, a more ideological speaker candidate like Frank, Goldman or Krause could be on the table. There’s also a theory that a Democratic candidate like Thompson — the second longest-serving House member and the longest-serving woman and African-American in history at the Legislature — has the experience to navigate the House through the upcoming session.

I agree that which party has the majority, and by how much, will matter a lot. And hoo boy, what might happen if we have a 75-75 split – there would surely be a compromise power-sharing agreement out there, but just agreeing about who chairs what committees gives me a headache. I tend to believe that if Dems have a majority, the job will be Rep. Thompson’s if she wants it, but she may not want it. She might prefer to be in the trenches passing the priority bills, or she may just decide the job is too much trouble to be worth it. Joe Moody may be best positioned to be a compromise candidate if the parties are tied or even if Republicans have a 76-74 lead but can’t settle their ideological rifts and find their own consensus; in other words, he could be the Democratic Joe Straus. I feel like TMF is the choice if Dems wind up with a bit of a cushion and are feeling a bit salty. I’m totally spitballing here.

Whoever wins the job in the event of a Dem house, he or she will have a slightly easier go of it than a Dem Speaker from before 2010 would have had, as the caucus is more unified on issues these days. That’s largely because there are no more conservative Dems from rural districts, and thus no one who has to be appeased or coddled on things like LGBTQ equality or gun control or immigration. Passing a budget that fully funds education and prioritizes coronavirus relief, and maximizing Democratic leverage on redistricting, are the two top tasks. When the Dems get together after the election to plan their strategy for the session, those have to be the main questions that any Speaker wannabe must answer. We know how important this election is, but in part that’s because what comes after it is so damn important, too.

Two abortion stories

The amicus briefs are being filed in the HB2 case.

The Obama administration on Monday urged the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down a Texas abortion law that has shuttered nearly half the clinics in the state, saying the Republican-backed regulations would harm rather than protect women’s health.

[…]

If allowed to take full effect, U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli wrote, the law would close many more of the state’s clinics and force hundreds of thousands of Texas women to travel great distances if they seek to terminate pregnancies.

“Those requirements are unnecessary to protect – indeed, would harm – women’s health, and they would result in closure of three quarters of the abortion clinics in the state,” Verrilli wrote.

[…]

The Obama administration did not fully embrace the clinic challengers’ position, however.

The clinics that sued Texas, represented by the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), say judges trying to determine whether a regulation unconstitutionally burdens a woman’s right to abortion should look at legislators’ purpose or motives.

In this case, CRR lawyers said, the state’s assertions of health concerns “are nothing more than a pretext for restricting access to abortion.”

Administration lawyers emphasized a judicial review tied to the effects of a law. That more nuanced stance might have been crafted to appeal to pivotal justice Anthony Kennedy, who in past cases has backed a fundamental right to abortion but has broken from his abortion-rights colleagues to endorse certain regulations.

Obama administration lawyers said the law’s requirements that clinics have hospital-grade facilities and clinic doctors obtain admitting privileges at a local hospital were unnecessary because abortions provided in Texas are safe and have produced a low rate of complications.

The hearing will take place on March 2. As the Trib reports, there have been 45 briefs filed so far in opposition to HB2. Many of them are aimed at Justice Anthony Kennedy since he is our supreme lord and master seen as the lone swing vote on this issue. That Presidential election later this year is looking pretty big, huh? The Chron, Think Progress, Daily Kos, and Newsdesk have more.

Of course, even a favorable outcome in this case won’t make abortion that much more accessible in Texas. The 2015 Legislature continued its assault on reproductive freedom, and as usual those who have the least ability to cope will bear the brunt of it.

Minors needing an abortion in Texas without parental consent have a new web of rules to navigate in 2016.

The Texas Supreme Court issued the rules in late December to implementHB 3994, the state’s newly passed judicial bypass law that governs the process for abused and neglected minors to obtain court approval to consent to an abortion.

The rules took effect January 1, imposing extensive restrictions for those minors seeking a judicial bypass for an abortion. Advocates claim such restrictions are unconstitutional.

“Judicial bypass protects vulnerable pregnant teens who cannot find or safely turn to a parent,” Tina Hester, executive director of Jane’s Due Process, a nonprofit advocacy organization serving minors in need of reproductive health care, said in a statement following the release of the rules. “But the legislature and Governor Abbott decided to go after abused and neglected pregnant teens by amending this law.”

One of the most significant changes made to the judicial bypass process by HB 3994 is to remove the enforcement deadlines for the judge to rule on a minor’s request for an abortion. Advocates claim this provision effectively allows a judge to stall out a minor until they can no longer obtain a legal abortion.

“When a minor cannot even get a hearing or a court ruling in time, the state is then making her decision for her,” Susan Hays, legal counsel and a founding mother of Jane’s Due Process, said in a statement. “Such abuse of state power amounts to an ‘absolute veto’ of her decision and is under U.S. Supreme Court precedent unconstitutional.”

[…]

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the late 1970s that to be constitutional, a judicial bypass process must be anonymous, expeditious, and provide an effective opportunity for a minor to obtain an abortion. The new Texas requirements violate these requirements in a number of ways, advocates claim.

First, HB 3994 extends the time for a judge to rule on a minor’s request for a judicial bypass from two business days to five and declares a case denied if the judge does not rule within those five days. Advocates contend this requirement could have the harmful effect of pushing a minor into a more expensive procedure or past the legal limit for abortion, especially considering long clinic wait times since the passage of HB 2, Texas’ clinic-closure law.

The law requires minors to provide the judge considering the bypass their name, home address, and phone number, therefore erasing patient anonymity and confidentiality. HB 3994 also requires most minors to file their request for a bypass in their home county if its population is more than 10,000, including in cases of rape.

“How heartless for the law to have no exception for a rape survivor fearful of seeing her rapist at the courthouse,” Hays said.

Minors often pursue a judicial bypass for an abortion when parents are abusive, missing, deported, incarcerated, deceased, or drug dependent, according to advocates.

Advocates claim that many Texas courthouses are unwilling to assist minors in applying for bypass. A 2015 Jane’s Due Process survey of more than 80 Texas counties found that 81 percent of counties did not have immediate knowledge of the judicial bypass process and 37 percent of the counties denied entirely a teenager’s ability to file for a bypass.

The refusal rate was 58 percent in counties with fewer than 50,000 people.

See here, here, and here for the background. That’s our Legislature for you. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Nothing will change until some people start losing elections over this stuff. I’m not holding my breath for that, but in the meantime it sure sounds like there will be more litigation in our future. The Trib, the Press, the Observer, the Chron, and Newsdesk have more.

House passes stricter judicial bypass bill

Unfortunate but expected.

Never again

Never again

After about four hours of debate and a barrage of failed amendments by Democrats, the House passed House Bill 3994 by Republican state Rep. Geanie Morrison of Victoria on a 98-47 vote. The measure would enact several restrictions on “judicial bypass,” the legal process that allows some minors to obtain abortions without their parents’ permission. The measure now awaits final approval by the House before it can go to the Senate.

Texas law requires minors to obtain consent for an abortion from at least one parent. But if obtaining an abortion could endanger the minor, she can look to the courts for judicial bypass to obtain the abortion without parental consent.

“The intent of this bill is to improve the protection of the minor girl and ensure that parental rights are protected,” Morrison said.

But the measure was met with fierce opposition from Democrats who called several points of order — a method used to delay or kills bills on a technicality — and offered several amendments to weaken the bill. Their efforts were unsuccessful.

Among the restrictions in HB 3994 is a requirement that doctors presume a pregnant woman is a minor unless she presents a “valid government record of identification” — a measure opponents of the bill have dubbed as “abortion ID.”

Democrats unsuccessfully attempted to tack on several amendments to the bill to strike the ID provision altogether and broaden the types of IDs that would be acceptable under the law.

State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin who offered an ID-related amendment questioned whether HB 3994 is intended to create “a defacto ban on abortion for people who don’t have IDs.” Meanwhile, state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, grilled Morrison on why a student ID from a high school or college would not be acceptable or whether she expected victims of human trafficking to be able to comply with the provision.

“What kind of ID do you think a human trafficking would have?” Anchia asked Morrison.

“If they’re actually a victim of human trafficking they should be going to a police department,” Morrison responded.

It was one of few questions Morrison answered during the hours-long debate, declining multiple requests from Democrats to answer questions about the bill.

The legislation would also increase the burden of proof for minors who say that asking for parental consent could lead to physical, sexual or emotional abuse.

[…]

Additionally, the measure would restrict where minors can seek judicial bypass. Minors can currently file applications for judicial bypass in any county in the state. But HB 3994 would require minors to file applications in their home county, unless that county has a population under 10,000, or the county where she will obtain the procedure.

An amendment by state Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, to revise that population limit to 50,000 failed.

Another provision of Morrison’s bill would make public the names of judges who rule on judicial bypass cases. González also offered an amendment to strike this provision from the bill, arguing that it would “put a target on the backs of judges who rule on these cases.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Now read that last paragraph, and keep in mind this is happening at a time when unlimited “dark money” campaign contributions can be made in secret and the Lege is busy protecting the identities of those involved in making the lethal injection drugs, in each case because of fear or reprisal from some unknown foe. But the names of judges who grant judicial bypass requests? Sure, go ahead and publish them. What could they possibly have to fear? I mean, whoever heard of violence being committed against anyone associated with abortion?

There is one small glimmer of hope, as RG Ratcliffe notes.

Morrison’s bill has no Senate companion. Finding a Senate sponsor will not be difficult, but the bill comes up again today [Thursday] on third reading. That means even more time will be eaten up by debating it once more, further driving down the chances of [Rep. Cecil] Bell’s anti-same-sex marriage bill. Also, depending on how the House handles the paperwork, Morrison’s bill might not be delivered to the Senate until sometime next week. Then it would have to be read and referred to committee, where a public hearing would be required before it could be voted out. Senate rules also provide means of delaying the hearing on the bill. So the odds of the bill reaching the governor are not great.

By debating it in the House, however, the legislation gives the Republican allies of Speaker Joe Straus an anti-abortion vote they can carry into next year’s primaries.

[…]

Now, the lay of the land for Bell’s HB 4105. The legislation would bar county clerks from issuing same-sex marriage licenses if the U.S. Supreme Court declares state bans on such marriages to be unconstitutional. The clerks could be caught between following a Supreme Court opinion and state law.

“It would be chaos,” Chuck Smith of Equality Texas told me.

Smith also believes the bill would be part of a larger strategy to keep fighting against implementing same-sex marriage in Texas. He speculated that Attorney General Ken Paxton would first argue that the Texas case, pending before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, was not part of the national case and so the ruling does not apply. Failing that, Paxton could then litigate using Bell’s bill that the federal government cannot force the states to use state money to enforce a federal law or court ruling.

Failure tonight of Bell’s bill would make that litigation more difficult.

Ah, you say, Governor Greg Abbott could add Bell’s bill to the agenda of any special session. That is true, but the governor would be unlikely to call a session before his 20-day deadline to sign or veto bills has passed. That means the timing of a special session, particularly if the tax-cut negotiations break down, is most likely sometime in early July. By then, the Supreme Court will have ruled, and if it rules in favor of same-sex marriages, that will be the law of the land before the Legislature could resurrect Bell’s legislation.

It’s something, but remember Abbott could add the judicial bypass bill to a special session call, too. I drafted this last night so I didn’t know as I wrote if Bell’s bill would fall off the table or not. I’ll post something about it for tomorrow, but whatever does happen any opportunity to slow things down was welcome. In the meantime, as distasteful and damaging as those tax cut proposals are, it would be better if they pass now and not in the summer. Hair Balls, Newsdesk, and the Observer have more.

Texas plans to sue over EPA’s latest clean air plan

So what else is new?

ERCOT

Attorney General Ken Paxton said Tuesday that he plans to sue the Obama administration over the proposed “Clean Power Plan,” its plan to combat climate change by slashing carbon emissions from power plants.

“Texas has proven we can improve air quality without damaging our economy or Texans’ pocketbooks,” the Republican said in a statement, claiming the rules would threaten the power grid and increase electric prices. “I will fight this ill-conceived effort that threatens the livelihood and quality of life of all Texans.”

Using those arguments over the past year, the state’s Republican leadership has loudly panned the proposal, which would require the state to cut close to 200 billion pounds of carbon dioxide in the next two decades however it sees fit.

Environmental and health advocates say limiting the greenhouse gas would help fight climate change, bolster public health and conserve water in parched Texas, and they suggest that opponents are exaggerating the economic burdens.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency suggests that Texas could meet its goal through a combination of actions: making coal plants more efficient, switching to cleaner-burning natural gas, adding more renewable resources and bolstering energy efficiency. Under the proposal, Texas could also adopt a “cap and trade” program – a scheme in which companies bid on the right to pollute.

The federal proposal is scheduled to become final in June, and Texas would have one year to submit its plan. But some watching the debate expect the EPA to push back the deadline amid pressure from states and other critics.

If Texas ignores the rules, the EPA will construct its own plan for Texas, though the agency has not said what that might look like. Democrats and others call that approach risky and suggest it would beckon more stringent requirements.

Bills that would direct Texas regulators to adopt a plan are nearing their death in the Legislature.

Fossil fuel interests and 15 U.S. states – not including Texas – have sued the EPA over the proposed rules in a case heard last week in federal court. Judges appeared skeptical of a challenge to rules that haven’t been finalized.

See here, here, and here for the background. I have to say, if Paxton managed to deliver that line about Texas improving its air quality on its own with a straight face, it will be the most impressive thing he ever does in office. Texas has fought the EPA multiple times in recent years with little to show for it, with another fight currently before the Supreme Court. Doesn’t mean they’ll lose this time, but it does give one some hope. It would of course be cheaper and easier and better for everyone if they would give up this fight and adopt rules that the state is already most of the way towards meeting anyway, but like most things in life that comes down to winning elections, and we know how that has gone around here.

Meanwhile, if you don’t like the idea of the EPA wielding power over Texas, you won’t like this, either.

Texas appears poised to enact environmental legislation that could trigger an unintended consequence: more federal oversight.

Fast-moving bills that would curb opportunities for public protest so state environmental permits can be issued more quickly have drawn the attention of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, long the state’s political punching bag.

The agency says it has concerns about the legislation, and may need to review whether it jeopardizes permitting authority the EPA has granted Texas.

Senate Bill 709 would scale back contested case hearings, a process that allows the public to challenge industrial applications for permits at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) — such as those allowing wastewater discharges or air pollution.

Similar versions of the bill pushed by Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, and Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, have sailed through the House and Senate, rankling consumer and environmental groups.

[…]

The EPA says it shares concerns about the bill, which would overhaul the hearings process in a variety of ways. It would give the agency sole discretion to determine who is an “affected person” who could ask for a hearing; set an 180-day time limit for the proceedings (with potential exceptions); narrow the issues the public could argue; and arguably shift the burden of proof from the company to the public.

“EPA is concerned that as currently drafted, [the legislation] could be read to impact the applicability of federal requirements to federal permitting programs being implemented by the TCEQ,” David Gray, director of external affairs for the EPA’s Dallas-based regional office, recently wrote to Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, who had asked for input.

Gray called the shift in the “burden of proof” as particularly problematic, adding that the EPA should review the legislation to ensure that it doesn’t “interfere with federal requirements or alter the basis for one or more program requirements.”

See here for the background. It’s like we can’t help ourselves sometimes, isn’t it?

And finally, on a related note:

Kansas and Texas will file amicus briefs supporting Florida in its lawsuit against the federal government over Medicaid expansion, Gov. Rick Scott announced Monday.

Scott filed suit last week, alleging that the federal government is “coercing” the state into accepting Medicaid expansion by witholding the extension of a different Medicaid program. The Low Income Pool brings $1.3 billion in federal funds to the state to pay hospitals for care for the poor and uninsured and is set to expire June 30.

“I am glad Kansas and Texas are joining our fight against the Obama Administration for attempting to coerce Florida into Obamacare expansion by ending an existing federal healthcare program and telling us to expand Medicaid instead. The US Supreme Court has already called this sort of coercion tactic illegal,” Scott said in a released statement.

In granting a one-year extension last year, federal officials stated they would not extend it again without significant changes. A recent letter from federal officials to the state clearly suggested the fate of LIP was tied to Medicaid expansion but officials with the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services have also said Florida is free to expand Medicaid or not as it wishes.

See here for the background. Daily Kos has characterized the Florida lawsuit as being about refusing federal Obamacare dollars while demanding federal non-Obamacare dollars, which strikes me as apt. Easy to see why it was irresistible to Texas to join in. Ed Kilgore has more.

Three bad bills

Bad bill #1:

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, has been trying for months to pass legislation that would make it tougher for local entities to bring in more tax revenue by taking advantage of rising property values.

On Thursday, he managed to add language to a bill from state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, that could do just that, though not as severely as many local officials had feared.

Creighton’s bill, http://txlege.texastribune.org/84/bills/SB1760/, aims to make the administration of local property taxes more transparent with provisions such as directing the comptroller to publish a ranking of property tax rates statewide and requiring local entities to justify future tax increases on election notices and ballots.

Under Bettencourt’s amendment, 60 percent of the members of a city, county, school district or other local entity’s governing body would have to approve a property tax rate that brings in more revenue from existing homes and businesses than was collected in the previous year — a metric known as “the effective tax rate.” Currently, approval of a simple majority of a local governing board is all that is needed.

[…]

The Texas Municipal League, which counts more than 1,000 Texas cities among its members, first heard rumors about Bettencourt’s amendment Thursday morning, and began lobbying senators against it, fearing that it was an attempt to pass his revenue cap bill, according to to executive director Bennett Sandlin.

The actual amendment language could pose problems for some local entities, Sandlin said. But he stopped short of promising that the municipal league would work to kill it in the House.

“We’re still digesting,” Sandlin said. “It’s not a full-blown revenue cap so I don’t want to say we’re going to go to the mat on this.”

Sandlin argued that the amendment should have been vetted more thoroughly by the Senate.

“It was never in a bill and it never had a hearing,” Sandlin said.

Bad bill #2:

Legislation that would upend the legal process in Texas to allow the attorney general to have a three-judge panel to decide cases with statewide implications, rather than a single district judge, was approved Thursday by the state Senate after a lengthy and pitched debate.

Senate Bill 455 by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, would allow the attorney general to request the Texas Supreme Court’s chief justice to form a panel of judges to hear any cases filed in a district court in which the state is a defendant.

School finance and redistricting were two examples cited as among the types of cases that could be covered by the change, which supporters argued was needed to keep one county from steering the outcome of important cases that affects all of Texas.

“When one county is given that much control, it effectively disenfranchises voters of the other 253 counties who did not vote for that district court judge,” Creighton said. “We’ve seen a 40-year saga in and out of court on school finance. We have one trial court that hears that case and it is reviewed on appeal by the Supreme Court based on parameters and decisions set by that court. It would be better representation across the state to allow a process where other judges are involved in decisions of that magnitude.”

[…]

Under the bill, a single state district judge still could hear cases with statewide impact, unless the attorney general requested a three-judge panel. A state district judge and an appellate judge from elsewhere in Texas would join the original district judge in hearing the case.

“It sounds totally unnecessary, since those cases go directly on appeal to the Supreme Court that is 100 percent Republican,” said F. Scott McCown, a University of Texas law professor and former Austin district judge who heard school finance cases between 1990 and 2002. “It will be more costly and slower to have three judges on a trial. Three-judge panels are very awkward and inefficient.”

And if lawmakers think they might get a different outcome with a three-judge panel, McCown and other legal experts noted that the Texas Supreme Court has ruled against the state in five of the six of the school-finance cases since 1984.

Bad bill #3:

Texas is poised to widen its welcome mat to a wide range of industries.

Claiming that the state’s bureaucracy is shooing away businesses, House lawmakers on Thursday night gave initial approval to a bill aiming to quicken regulators’ pace of cranking out permits for major industrial projects – by limiting public scrutiny.

Over the objections of consumer groups and environmentalists, the chamber tentatively passed Senate Bill 709, which would scale back contested-case hearings, a process that allows the public to challenge industrial applications for permits at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) – such as those allowing wastewater discharges or air pollution emissions.

Texas’ current bureaucracy puts the state at a “serious disadvantage” compared to its neighbors, said Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, adding that her legislation would give businesses more certainty.

Already approved by the Senate, the measure sailed through the House by a 92-50 margin after Democrats put up a roughly 90-minute fight, arguing that lawmakers were poised to squelch the voices of their constituents.

“This bill is very, very serious,” said Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, who saw his and other proposed amendments to soften the bill shot down. “You will have to explain to your constituents why you have taken away their right, why you have enhanced their burden and why you have stripped them of protection.”

Contested case hearings resemble a trial in which companies and their critics present evidence and testimony in front of an administrative law judge in the hopes of swaying regulators, who have the final say. For particularly complicated – and controversial – industrial projects, the process can yield information that the short-staffed TCEQ did not foresee.

Protesters rarely convince regulators or a company to completely withdraw a permit application, but veterans of the process say they often win concessions that shrink a plant or landfill’s effects on the community.

[…]

Less than 1 percent of permit applications ever draw a contested-case hearing.

Of 1,960 waste, water and air permit applications filed with TCEQ last year, for instance, the commission granted hearings to just 10, according to an analysis of public records by the advocacy group Public Citizen. The agency confirmed those numbers to The Texas Tribune.

The analysis also found that Texas typically processes air quality permits faster than Arkansas, Arizona, Oklahoma, New Jersey, Colorado and even Louisiana.

I grouped these three bills together because they neatly encapsulate two of the main Republican priorities for this session: Partisan advantage and stomping on local control. Bettencourt’s amendment to Creighton’s bill, which as the story notes is at least not his infamous revenue cap bill, is both an ideological obsession on his part, and a nuisance bit of effluvia that in the end may not make much difference. The city of Houston hasn’t raised its property tax rate in my memory; thanks to its own stupid revenue cap, it may never be able to do so again. HISD raised its lower-than-most property tax rate in 2014 as it said it would as part of the 2012 bond referendum. That passed on a 7-1 vote, so it would have easily cleared the higher bar. As far as counties go, remember that they all have four-member Commissioners Courts plus a County Judge. To pass anything requires either a 3-2 or 3-1 vote depending on whether the Judge votes or not, and all of those are 60% or better. I’m sure this will have some effect somewhere, but here in Houston? Probably not much.

The contested case hearing bill, like the anti-fracking-ban bill, is an example of what happens when the state fails to uphold its responsibilities to the people. Just as there would be no demand in cities to regulate fracking within their limits if the Railroad Commission wasn’t such an industry lapdog, neither would there be much demand for contested case hearings if the TCEQ were worth a damn. The folks in Denton and elsewhere have done what they have done because it was the only viable option available to them. (Well, at least until enough people statewide realize that they need better and more responsive government at that level.) Now that option has been taken away, and this one may be as well. Better hope you don’t live anywhere close to a site that may someday be used for industrial purposes.

(You didn’t think I’d let these bills go by without asking once again what the Mayoral candidates think of them, did you? At least we know what Sylvester Turner thinks of the contested case bill. The Lege and TxDOT are going to have a bigger effect on the next Mayor’s tenure than any of them seem to realize right now.)

Finally, the make-school-finance-lawsuits-more-complicated bill – the story also mention redistricting litigation, but that’s usually done in federal court, and I don’t know that the state has any authority there – is another nuisance partisan bill that like Bettencourt’s amendment may wind up having little practical effect. I mean, if the Supreme Court upholds Judge Dietz’s latest ruling, can anyone claim that politics was a factor? I would also note that it is entirely within the Legislature’s power to ensure that there are no more school finance lawsuits ever again. All they have to do is a better job funding the schools.

More on judicial bypass

Nonsequiteuse provides an update, and it’s not looking good.

Never again

Never again

Rep. King’s HB723, which was left pending in the Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee last week, was weak sauce compared to Rep. Morrison’s HB3994, on the State Affairs Committee agenda for Wednesday, April 22nd.

Was King’s bill a bare bones practice run for Morrison’s more robust one, tossed out to see how the opposition would respond?

It was a poorly constructed bill filed relatively early in the session, assigned to a committee which does not normally handle abortion-related bills, likely because it tackled only part of the judicial bypass procedure. Testimony went quickly, relative to the marathon sessions legislators now know to expect in State Affairs. It was given a hearing on an inauspicious day for its champions, inasmuch as constituents predisposed to oppose it were already in town for Blue Ribbon Lobby Day and various gun bills, so were readily on hand to sign in opposed and/or testify. It had an unimpressive four joint authors, two of whom signed on before it was even assigned to a committee.

Morrison’s HB3994, in contrast, has 22 joint authors, most of whom signed on within the past six weeks, immediately after it was filed. Unlike King’s bill, it is listed as part of the Texas Alliance for Life legislative agenda. And if ever a bill could be called an omnibus bill, this is it.

HB3994 throws knock-out punches left and right.

The TL;DR is that this bill greatly complicates, unnecessarily lengthens, and greatly increases the cost of the bypass procedure while removing almost all judicial discretion and creating such a high burden of proof for the minor that it will be all but impossible to obtain a bypass.

See here for the background, and click over there for the details and the call to action. They may not listen, but we will be heard.

First thoughts on the new Congressional map

OK, down to business. Here’s a map of the new plan, which was unanimously approved by the three judges, the 2008 election data, and here’s 2010 election data. Going by the 2012 data, I break it down as follows:

Strong R


Dist  Obama Pct  Houston Pct
============================
01         30.5         36.4
02         34.4         35.6
03         37.4         36.8
04         29.4         37.6
05         36.5         41.2
08         25.6         29.3
11         23.0         28.4
12         34.1         35.5
13         22.2         27.4
17         33.2         38.2
19         28.0         32.4
21         33.0         31.5
24         38.0         37.5
26         35.4         35.5
31         39.8         41.3
34         32.9         37.1
36         31.1         39.8

Likely R


Dist    Obama Pct    Houston Pct
============================
07         42.5         40.8
14         41.9         47.3
22         40.6         41.2
32         43.0         43.1

Lean R


Dist  Obama Pct  Houston Pct
============================
06         44.8         47.5
10         46.5         45.5

Strong D


Dist  Obama Pct  Houston Pct
============================
09         77.3         77.6
15         61.9         65.8
16         66.6         68.8
18         77.4         77.5
25         68.4         65.2
27         58.3         62.1
28         58.6         63.0
29         62.0         67.6
30         81.5         81.3
33         62.5         63.1

Likely D


Dist  Obama Pct  Houston Pct
============================
20         58.5         58.8

Lean D


Dist  Obama Pct  Houston Pct
============================
23         51.4         53.1
35         54.4         55.9
 

Barring any surprises, that’s a 23-13 split, which means (contra the Chron and its funny math once again) a four-seat gain from the current 23-9 split. The Dems have more upside than downside, and it’s not crazy to think that over the course of the decade some districts could move into a different classification, such as currently solid R seats 05, 24, and 31. I was just on a conference call with Matt Angle and Gerry Hebert about the new map, and Angle suggested CDs 06 and 14 as ones that will trend Democratic. I asked him about CD10, which has a similar electoral profile right now to those two, and while he agreed it can be competitive, he didn’t think the demographics will change as much as in the others.

Note that CD33 is now a majority-minority seat in Tarrant County – BOR notes that State Rep. Marc Veasey, one of the plaintiffs and strong fighters in these suits, has already indicated his interest in running for it. He’s already got an opponent if so – a press release from Fort Worth City Council member Kathleen Hicks that announced her entry into the CD33 sweepstakes, hit my inbox about ten minutes after the publication of the new map. PoliTex confirms both of these. One way or another, though, it sounds like sayonara to Roger Williams.

CD34 stretches from the Gulf Coast into the Hill Country, taking a chunk out of the southern edge of the old CD10. CD36 is more or less as it was before, in the eastern/southeastern part of Harris County and points east from there. CD35 is no longer in Travis County, so the Doggett/Castro death match is no more – Rep. Lloyd Doggett gets his Travis-anchored CD25 back, and Rep. Joaquin Castro gets a new Bexar-anchored district to run in. I don’t know if freshman Rep. Blake Farenthold can run in CD34 – I suspect he’d face a challenge from some Republican State Reps if he tried. Perhaps State Rep. Geanie Morrison, based in Victoria and now paired with State Rep. Todd Hunter, might take a crack at it, or maybe Hunter will. I presume State Sen. Mike Jackson will continue to pursue CD36. All of the Republican contenders for the Lege-drawn CD25 are also now out of luck, so bye-bye to former Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams as well. Not a good day for Williamses who wanted to run for Congress.

Comments and objections are due on Friday, and one presumes it, along with the other two, will be finalized by Monday the 28th, which is the opening of filing season, though I hear that could possibly get pushed back a day. Greg, Stace, the Lone Star Project, Postcards, the Trib, and Trail Blazers have more.

Balancing the budget on the backs of charities

Just another “accounting trick” from our Republican legislature.

Each year, more than 100 organizations — including the University of Texas, the Texas Commission on the Arts, the Special Olympics and the Girl Scouts — earn a collective $2.5 million from specialty plates voluntarily purchased by drivers. The $30 plates earn $22 for nonprofits or state agencies, $7.50 goes to the state highway fund, and 50 cents goes to the county in which the vehicle is registered.

Now that money is at risk. In the main budget bill legislators passed last month, officials decided to defer payment on half the money organizations receive through the plates for the next two years. Nonprofits would get $11 per sale. The rest of their money could not be accessed until September 2013 .

The idea is to, in effect, turn that revenue into state income, which helps balance the budget, said Robin Stallings, executive director of BikeTexas , which has taken the lead on fighting the proposal and received $330,000 from the fund in 2010.

Nonprofits say the deferred payments will hurt them because they use that money to operate programs and leverage other sources of income, such as federal grants. They also worry that the state could come back in two years and pass another bill directing that money somewhere else.

“Nobody’s taking much comfort in that we’re supposed to get that money in two years,” Stallings said. “The longer it sits there, the more attractive it becomes for the state to want to keep it for some other purpose.”

This is not a new development, by the way. Rep. Geanie Morrison has filed an amendment that would prevent this from happening, so it’s not set in stone yet. There’s nothing particularly unusual about this kind of budget prestidigitation – just ask Rep. Sylvester Turner about the System Benefit Fund, and watch the smoke come out of his ears. Still, this is the sort of thing you should expect when the very idea of raising revenue is anathema. My advice would be to put off getting that “Animal Friendly” license plate till 2013, when the money you spend on it will again go to the cause behind it. We hope, anyway.