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Floor Pass

University of Texas Tower Austin
Under the compromise legislation, presidents of public universities like the University of Texas at Austin will be able to write "reasonable rules" about where concealed handguns may be carried.

As in a Chekhov story, a gun introduced in the first chapter of the 84th Texas Legislature was bound to be fired later in the session. The session began with guns, and so it ended. On Sunday, the last day to pass legislation, the Legislature finally approved a “campus carry” bill, allowing concealed handgun license holders to carry handguns on college campuses.

From the beginning of the session, the fate of campus carry was uncertain. Gov. Greg Abbott and House Speaker Joe Straus never showed much enthusiasm for the idea, and most university administrators and faculty despised the idea of guns on campus. As late as mid-May, Senate Bill 11 was stuck in a House committee, where many observers expected it to perish. Still, campus carry has been a fetish of some gun rights activists for years and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick had pledged during his campaign to pass a bill allowing guns on campus. Late in the session, lawmakers managed to cobble together a version that ultimately pleases very few.

That version, now on the governor’s desk, contains a major concession to opponents of campus carry. Public universities can’t opt-out of the law, but university presidents will be allowed to write “reasonable rules” about where concealed handguns may be carried. Those rules can be changed by a two-thirds vote of the university system’s board of regents.

The bill’s author, Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury), said that even with that change, the intent of the bill is for “public colleges to be as permissive and accessible to CHL holders as possible” and for universities to be as “minimalistic as possible” when establishing restrictions. The bill’s language states that university leaders may not establish rules that “generally prohibit” or “have the effect of generally prohibiting” campus carry.

But the bill’s text doesn’t provide a definition of “reasonable rules.” Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) said he “completely disagreed” with Birdwell’s interpretation of the bill. He said that “reasonable rules” provision was offered by the House to give universities broad discretion in implementing the policy.

Martinez Fischer and several other House Democrats, opposing campus carry in any form, voted against the bill.

With the messy and uncertain ending to the campus carry fight, it’s worth asking: Who won?

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick:

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has long been a supporter of campus carry. In 2013 he co-authored a bill to allow concealed handgun license holders to carry handguns into buildings on college campuses. (CHL holders are currently allowed to carry concealed handguns on college campuses outdoors.) That bill was referred to committee but never got a hearing. In a campaign ad for the lieutenant governor’s race in 2013, he promised to pass campus carry this session, and said in a Jan. 28 Facebook post: “regarding the Second Amendment, our first priority this session is to pass Campus Carry.”

But Patrick shifted his focus after he ran afoul of open carry activists. In a January interview with Texas Tribune editor Evan Smith, Patrick said he didn’t think there were enough votes to pass open carry. The activists were livid. Patrick quickly backpedaled, calling for a committee hearing on open carry legislation as soon as possible. He even had his staff meet with open carry activists just a week after several members of Open Carry Tarrant County threatened Rep. Alfonso “Poncho” Nevarez (D-Eagle Pass) in his office.

In March, after the Senate voted to send SB 11, the campus carry bill, to the House, Patrick released a statement that applauded Sen. Birdwell’s leadership and said the bill “expands and protects Second Amendment Right legislation in a historic way.”

Patrick has been mum on the bill since, so it’s unclear how he feels about the version that was sent the governor.

Although the current legislation is a watered-down version of the bill Patrick co-authored last session, its passage is a win for the lieutenant governor, who will no doubt retain his “A” rating from the NRA and get to claim that he passed a bill important to some gun activists.

Verdict: A win for Patrick.

Gov. Greg Abbott:

The version of campus carry that was finally passed last weekend closely aligns with Gov. Greg Abbott’s original stance on the issue. Abbott’s policy plan, released in 2013, recommends that CHL holders be allowed to carry weapons on college campuses “subject to appropriate limits.” It goes on to state that public institutions should be allowed to “opt out of campus carry requirements” and that private institutions should not be required to opt in.

But at a press conference in February, Abbott said he would sign “whatever legislation reaches my desk that expands Second Amendment rights in Texas,” including campus carry legislation, with or without an opt-out provision.

Throughout the session, Abbott has been a vocal supporter of legislation allowing CHL holders to openly carry handguns. In his State of the State address, he gave a shout-out to open carry, and almost immediately after both chambers gave their final approval to the bill, Abbott tweeted: “Open Carry just passed in both the Texas House & Senate. Next destination: My Pen.” Campus carry didn’t get the same tweet of approval, but Abbott indicated in a radio interview Tuesday morning that he’d sign the bill.

Verdict: A win for Abbott.

Gun Rights Groups:

Overall, gun rights groups this session have been focused more on open carry than on campus carry. The usual suspects—the NRA and the Texas State Rifle Association—testified in support of campus carry during public hearings on SB 11 and House companion HB 937. Open Carry Texas, one of the more extreme Second Amendments groups, got in on the game, too, although that group has prioritized constitutional carry—the right to openly carry a handgun without a license.

Open Carry Texas leader C.J. Grisham released a statement on the group’s Facebook page saying he appreciates that he will now be able to defend himself and others “in the unlikely event that there is an active shooter.”

Piers Morgan and Dan Patrick
Dan Patrick and Piers Morgan talk about guns.

He called the legislation “common sense” and said that it abolishes a “major gun-free, victim-spree zone.”

Students for Concealed Carry—a national lobbying group with chapters at a few Texas universities—wasn’t so quick to declare the bill’s passage a victory. In a statement published on Twitter by Houston Chronicle reporter Lauren McGaughy, the group declared “we’ve lost” and said it would “appreciate it if the bill’s authors and sponsors would quit confusing the issue by claiming a victory for our side.”

The group is unhappy with the bill’s provision giving university leaders discretion to prohibit guns in certain buildings, and has vowed to lobby during the next session to remove that provision.

Verdict: A partial victory.

Campus Carry Opponents:

Gun violence prevention groups like Moms Demand Action and Texans for Gun Sense banded together with student groups to try to stop campus carry legislation from passing this session. William McRaven, chancellor of the University of Texas System—and a retired U.S. Navy admiral—supported their cause, writing letters to the Legislature to discourage passage of the bills. In one he wrote, “the presence of concealed weapons will make campus a less safe environment.”

During House debate on the conference committee report on Sunday, Rep. Helen Giddings (D-DeSoto) said she’d received more letters and phone calls from people about campus carry legislation than about any other bill during her decade in the Legislature.

Lawmakers, mostly Democrats, attempted to add more than 100 amendments to the bill and challenged it with points of order.

Sunday night, Julie Gavran, with the Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus, was exhilarated as she watched the House video stream in Rep. Chris Turner’s (D-Grand Prairie) office. It appeared that the bill might fail to meet the session’s midnight deadline and die in the House. She said that the moment was “uplifting in a very depressing session.” But she was also skeptical, and with good reason. Shortly before the deadline, Democrats made a deal to pass the bill with altered language, sending it to conference committee.

The Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus doesn’t view the watered-down bill as a win, because the rules can be changed with a two-thirds vote by each university system’s appointed board of regents.

Moms Demand Action, one of the most vocal gun control groups, said that the “compromise respects the wishes of the vast majority of university stakeholders” and called it a “drastic improvement” to the original language of the bill. McRaven said in a statement that he appreciated legislators “for recognizing the very specific safety considerations that are unique to campus environments.”

Verdict: A loss. But it could have been worse.

Everyone Else:

Arguably, the biggest losers in the campus carry battle are ordinary Texans. Not because college students are going to be met with an “entourage of guns,” as Rep. Alma Allen (D-Houston) said during the debate on Sunday. Only 3 percent of Texans possess concealed handgun licenses, and few of those are likely to be students, since a person must be 21 years of age or older to qualify.

Texans lost because the campus carry debate took up an inordinate amount of energy and time—precious resources for a Legislature that meets for only 140 days every two years. That’s time and energy that could have been used to deal with pressing problems—rising tuition comes to mind—instead of catering to a loud but small subset of gun owners.

The campus carry bill that passed is classic legislative sausage: an amalgam of different ideas compounded into a mess of a policy that no one is thrilled about. The bill is apparently intended to appease a vocal minority while trying to mollify the concerns of students, faculty and administrators, who didn’t ask for more guns on campus. It seems to have done neither.

In a speech on the House floor on Sunday, Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) lamented that campus carry would be a “banner headline” from this session. He said he wants Texas to be known as a state that makes sure kids are adequately educated and gives universities the resources they need to become the best in the world.

“I’d rather that Texas be known for that than for this bill that does nothing to further the education of our college students,” Turner said. “This bill does not serve the best interests of the students of the state of Texas.”

Konni Burton

Greg Abbott launched his term as governor earlier this year by bucking a long-held GOP conviction: local control. Addressing a conservative policy foundation in Austin, Abbott said that liberty-depriving city regulations, such as a ban on plastic bags, are “a form of collectivism” that’s “eroding the Texas Model.”

Abbott’s give-me-plastic-bags-or-give-me-death declaration presented an ideological conundrum for Texas conservatives: How does one defend local control while denying municipalities the freedom to enact regulations preferred by local officials? Enter stage (far) right state Sen. Konni Burton (R-Colleyville), a liberty-loving hero.

Burton is pushing legislation designed to create a new type of municipality: a liberty city. A liberty city must be established on the principles of limited government, preservation of individual and property rights, and restrictions on debt and taxing authority, says Burton’s chief of staff, Art Martinez de Vara.

Martinez de Vara also happens to be the mayor of Von Ormy, a small town in southwest Bexar County. Von Ormy is the self-described “freest little city in Texas” and the first Texas city established precisely on the tenets outlined in Burton’s bill. Burton is so serious about the idea that she lists the principles as a “Bill of Rights” in her legislation.

The first “article” in the bill takes aim at city regulations. It states that liberty cities “shall not enact an ordinance, resolution, or similar measure, or take any action, that infringes on the basic absolute and essential rights of the people.” That raises important questions. Where do the “basic absolute and essential rights of the people” begin? Where do they end? And where on that spectrum does the inalienable right to carry home your groceries in a plastic sack fall? Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, says cities already can choose to limit regulations and taxes. “Nothing says [cities] have to have a property tax or do zoning,” Sandlin says. “The bill is probably unnecessary.”

Martinez de Vara disagrees. To understand what a liberty city looks like in practice, take a closer look at Von Ormy.

Von Ormy incorporated six years ago and has roughly 1,300 residents. Von Ormy has no city property taxes. It relies on sales tax revenue from several truck stops—I-35 passes through town—to pay for public services. Its animal control officer, firefighters, and most of the police force are volunteers.

Martinez de Vara said the city doesn’t charge residents fees for anything. So, what can we learn from Von Ormy? Well, the town won’t be denying anyone the right to carry plastic.

But if a wild cur or wildfire wreaks havoc within the city limits, the tax-averse, freedom-loving citizenry might well be on its own.

2015 Inauguration Day Capitol
Kelsey Jukam
The 84th Texas Legislature has made sure the state will keep its nationally renowned status for nutty politics.

 

The Texas Legislature bids us goodbye today: For the next 19 months—barring a special session on school finance—the state’s residents are more or less safe, as long as you avoid Kory Watkins and Borris Miles. It’s a session that has seen its fair share of comic interludes, and Texas has once again kept secure its nationally renowned status as a nutty state for politics.

But in many ways, the Texas Legislature is probably calmer and more professional than it has ever been. For much of the state’s history, the session was a time where men from far-flung reaches of the state came to a relatively large city to booze and whore for five-month interludes before returning to the Gulf coast or the Panhandle or Highland Park. That held true for longer than you might expect. Billy Lee Brammer wrote in Texas Monthly in 1973 that “the Capitol itself, along with all House and Senate office buildings, is honeycombed with secret lovenests.” The past is filled with many fine statesmen, of course; one shouldn’t generalize.

To be sure, there’s still boozing and whoring, though probably less, and definitely done more discreetly. But in other areas, things are, in many ways, better. Until relatively recently, many legislators had no office at the Capitol and no staff to speak of. With less public scrutiny, they were even easier pickings for the lobby, which operated with zero transparency. Austin’s brothels, no great secret, did a healthy trade. And legislators faced a generally more forgiving attitude from the press corps.

There are still ignorant and corrupt legislators. The lobby still watches each incoming freshman class like vultures. But on the whole, the dysfunction of the recent past can’t hold a candle to its historical counterpart.

Here’s a very short list of some highlights. If you have a favorite story—one that ought to be here—email it to me at [email protected] and we’ll add the best ones.
 

Masonic cabals!

 
The Legislature can, at the best of times, sort of run the state, so imagine the sheer drama of watching its predecessor, the Congress of the Republic of Texas, run a nation. It was filled with rough men, and they often had a rough go of things.

On April 14, 1838, President Sam Houston gave an address to a joint session of Congress. Just after, Thomas William “Peg Leg” Ward, a fearsome Irish-born Texas pol, hit Francis R. Lubbock, then the Republic’s comptroller, with a stick. (History does not specify that the stick was, in fact, Peg Leg’s leg, though it is fun to think so.) Lubbock pulled a derringer and fired, with only the “timely intervention of a bystander” preventing Lubbock’s aim from being true.

The two were arrested and brought before the Senate, but, as is recorded in The Texas Senate: Volume I, Lubbock was “honorably discharged” from his arrest by Sen. Jonathan Russell. Both were brothers in the Holland Lodge, a Masonic organization that met in the Senate chamber and was instrumental in setting Republic policy. The group counted eight of the upper chamber’s 17 senators as members. Poor Peg Leg, the guy who was the one actually shot at, was officially reprimanded.

Volume I goes on to note, cautiously: “It is interesting to note that Lubbock earlier had sold his warehouse to be converted into an official residence for President Houston, also a Mason.”

Shady real estate deals involving Texas’ chief executive? Things really have changed.
 

Coups!

 
We had some tense committee meetings this session, and some tense floor debates. None match the furor caused in 1870, when a bill authorizing the governor to declare martial law and deploy the state militia hit the Senate floor.

When 13 senators opposed to the bill left the chamber to deny the Senate a quorum, and bolted the door of their conference room behind them, the radical Republicans who ran the Senate sent the long arm of the law after them. Windows of the room were smashed, and the senators were arrested. The Republicans voted for the militia bill without them. They released four—just enough to maintain a quorum—and kept the others under arrest for some three weeks while they passed bills.

When one senator involved in the walk-out, E.L. Alford, was stripped of his seat and a special election selected his replacement, Alford came to work anyway. His elected replacement had to sit in the wings.

Next session: Bob Hall passes his EMP bill—by any means necessary.
 

Heroes!

 
A frequent complaint among tea partiers is that no one in Austin reads the bills they pass. But even here, things are better than they used to be, in part because of the addition of legislative staff.

In 1969, state Rep. Tom Moore introduced and passed a resolution through the House, honoring a man he said had done important work in the field of “population control.”

This compassionate gentleman’s dedication and devotion to his work has enabled the weak and the lonely throughout the nation to achieve and maintain a new degree of concern for their future. He has been officially recognized by the state of Massachusetts for his noted activities and unconventional techniques involving population control and applied psychology.

The resolution honored Albert DeSalvo, otherwise known as the Boston Strangler.
 

Shootouts!

 
State Rep. Curtis Graves, a liberal African-American legislator from Houston elected in 1966, had to improvise in order to be heard. Once, he railed against a tax bill by standing and yelling on the House press table. In 1971, concerned about measures that made it easier to purchase handguns—thankfully, an issue we no longer face—he took the back mic in the House, pulled a revolver out of his pocket, and fired twice at the House ceiling.

Screen Shot 2015-05-30 at 5.51.57 PM
Screen Shot 2015-05-30 at 5.52.02 PM

Please, nobody tell Stickland (R-Highlander).
 

Ballads!

 
Writeth Paul Burka, in 1976, of one of the greatest Sine Die nights ever:

The scene on the floor of the House was bedlam: representatives clustered around the Speaker’s desk whispering advice; others gathered at the back microphone bellowing for recognition; and smaller groups huddled at scattered spots across the giant chamber where members passed rumors or strained to hear them. It was the closing hour of the 1971 regular session of the Texas Legislature, and the legislative process had broken down under the weight of the Sharpstown Scandal.

The heavy-handed tactics of Speaker Gus Mutscher, under attack for shepherding two suspicious-looking banking bills through a previous special session for discredited Houston promoter Frank Sharp, had divided the House into three groups: blind loyalists, troubled conservatives, and a coalition of liberals and Republicans known as the Dirty Thirty. A huge backlog of legislation was hopelessly stalled, and time was running out. Would Mutscher ask the governor to call a special session? Or would he order the hands of the clock turned back at midnight, extending the session while he tried to arm-twist members into passing a few of the more important bills? Or perhaps he would make a dramatic appeal to the House, asking members to put aside animosities and try to pass something in the little time remaining.

“May I have your attention, members?” Mutscher for once had no trouble with this request; all eyes were on him. “The Chair recognizes Mr. Nelms.”

The legislators were stunned. Why Nelms, everyone was thinking. Johnny Nelms of Pasadena was only a freshman, and a mediocre one at that. What could he do? The silence was broken by the sound of a guitar. Johnny Nelms could sing, that’s what he could do. And as the clock at the back of the chamber ticked away the final minutes of Gus Mutscher’s hegemony over the House, Johnny Nelms serenaded his colleagues with a song the Speaker particularly liked. It was called “Everything I Touch Turns to Dirt.”

Shortly after, Mutscher was indicted.
 

Anuses!

 
Earlier this session, Rep. Harold Dutton quizzed Rep. Stuart Spitzer about his sexual history, in what some felt was a session low point for the gentlemanly decorum the Texas House has become world-renowned for.

That’s nothing.

In 1993, state Rep. Warren Chisum, terrified that the state’s ban on sodomy would someday be overturned, offered an amendment that was very nondiscriminatory—it would have banned everyone from having anal sex. Chisum read his amendment, though he said it was “quite offensive to me to have to read it in public.” The amendment would make it a Class C misdemeanor for the “sexual organs” of one person to touch the “anus of another.” The following debate ensued:

State Rep. Debra Danburg: You’re trying to criminalize behavior between the opposite sex, is that right?
Chisum: That’s right.
Danburg: Even if they’re married.
Chisum: More especially if they’re married. Can’t believe anyone would do that if they were married.
Danburg: Even if it’s consensual.
Chisum: Under any circumstances.
Danburg: Even if they slip. Is that right, Mr. Chisum?
[laughter]
Chisum: A violation of the law is a violation of the law.
Danburg: OK, Warren. […] Say my husband and I were having intercourse, and it slipped. And it touched my anus. Do I need to go turn myself in to some health official?
Chisum: I would suggest you see a doctor about his aim.
 

~ Bonus Whitmire! ~

 
This session, a couple senators—though especially poor state Sen. Don Huffines—got the full-on Boogie treatment from state Sen. John Whitmire, who from time to time feels his ire rise on the Senate floor and verbally, brutally bludgeons his opponents like a partially-reformed loan shark collecting gambling debts.

This doesn’t really belong on the list, but at the end of this session in particular it needs to be seen. Here’s Whitmire giving the full dressing-down to then freshman state Sen. Dan Patrick in 2007:

They’re debating the budget. Patrick has suggested that there are $3 billion in cuts to be made, and Whitmire smells bullshit. He starts pacing and throwing fingers around.

“Give me the method of financing that you would use to make those cuts. It’s your time to show this body that you know what you’re talking about. Give us the $3 billion in cuts,” he half shouts. “And take your time.”

“I will take my time, senator,” Patrick says, “and I do know what I’m talking about. And I don’t have to stand here and be lectured by you.” To which Whitmire shouts: “Let’s GO!”

Patrick: “I don’t have to be lectured to by you.” Whitmire shouts back: “You can dish it out but you can’t take it, huh?

It goes on for a while. The whole thing is worth watching, with headphones, if the Legislature entertains you. Eight years later, Whitmire is still a shouty, fierce maniac who terrifies freshmen. And Patrick still wants to cut government, but doesn’t seem to know now. The more things change …

truancy court - Dallas \
Outside a truancy court in Dallas, Texas.

After a back-and-forth struggle between the House and Senate over which bill would advance, the Legislature finally managed—with little time to spare—to send legislation to the governor that would decriminalize Texas’ punitive system for handling truant students. On Saturday, the House and Senate both signed off on House Bill 2398, by Rep. James White (R-Woodville), which would bring to an end Texas’ 20-year experiment with treating school absences as a criminal matter.

Under HB 2398, students who miss school would no longer face fines (unless found in contempt of a court order), arrest and even jail time. Instead, those who wrack up unexcused absences would be subject to truancy prevention programs, such as behavior modification plans or in-school community service. If that doesn’t work, school administrators can refer students to a truancy court, where the problem will be treated as a civil rather than criminal matter. The court could order students to counseling or tutoring.

“Truancy, like school discipline, is a schoolhouse issue primarily, and we want to provide our school districts with discretion and tools,” White said. “But at the same time we want to give them a floor of expectations.”

Texas is one of only two states to prosecute minors for truancy. “Failure to Attend School” is currently a Class C misdemeanor for which schoolchildren are prosecuted, punished and fined for cutting classes and missing school.

In a report released earlier this year, Texas Appleseed, an advocacy organization at the forefront of fighting for truancy reform, found that Texas filed approximately 115,000 truancy cases in 2013—more than twice the number of truancy cases, including civil ones, in all other states combined.

The report also found that there is little evidence to support the notion that most truant children are simply “skipping class.” Many youth have other pressing problems: taking care of a sick parent, homelessness, undiagnosed special education needs and bullying. Under HB 2398, students who are pregnant, foster children, homeless kids or students who are the principal income earners for their families can’t be sent to truancy court.

“We celebrate this monumental victory for Texas children and families across our state,” said Texas Appleseed Executive Director Deborah Fowler. “This bill makes great strides towards keeping students who are struggling with school attendance in school and on track to graduate.”

Truancy reform seemed in jeopardy at many junctures late in the legislative session. A standoff between Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) and Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) put the effort at risk after both chambers overwhelmingly signed off on competing bills.

However, widespread bipartisan support for truancy reform won out. HB 2398 was endorsed by the Texas Association of School Boards, the Texas Association of Business, the Juvenile Justice Association of Texas, the Texas Justices of the Peace and Constables Association and the Texas PTA.

“This has become a bipartisan issue. You see Republicans, Democrats, tea party, all fighting against truancy,” said Derek Cohen, policy analyst for the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. “They realize skipping school should not be handled in a criminal process.”

The bill now goes to Gov. Greg Abbott. In 2013, Gov. Rick Perry vetoed similar legislation.

payday loan
Courtesy of Taber Andrew Bain via Flickr

Last session, legislators took sides in a marathon brawl over payday lending reform. But after those reforms died, there seemed to be little hope for action on the issue this year. As the 84th Legislature unfurled, though, a few small bills advanced. One of them, Senate Bill 1282, was hailed by some reformers as a modest but helpful augmentation of the ability of the Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner to regulate short-term lenders, including payday lenders. On Wednesday, it was killed by state Rep. Marisa Márquez (D-El Paso).

It’s a move one reformer who supported the bill called “disrespectful.” Márquez says her distaste for the bill didn’t necessarily have to do with the bill’s provisions, but rather the lack of opportunity lawmakers had to change it—something advocates of the bill had been trying to avoid. “With an issue this important, there should have been an opportunity for the rest of us to participate in it,” said Márquez.

The legislation—authored by state Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler) and carried in the House by state Rep. Tan Parker (R-Flower Mound)—was a relatively simple “clean-up” bill that would have clarified the powers of the little-known Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner, or OCCC, the state agency that licenses and regulates lenders. The agency had been asking for the bill for several sessions, and reform groups had been helping to drag it to the finish line.

Bee Moorhead, the executive director of Texas Impact, an interfaith advocacy group, said the bill was “not radical reform legislation,” but a series of needed technical changes. Among other things, the bill would have added references to the newly-created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to state law. And it would have given the OCCC clear authority to regulate lawsuit lenders, who loan cash to plaintiffs awaiting judgements or settlements in civil lawsuits. “Regulating this relatively new product early would help Texas avoid future conflicts,” Moorhead said, “like those that have occurred in other markets, such as payday lending.”

SB 1282 had already traveled a rocky road through the session. Some, including Republicans like state Rep. Tom Craddick (R-Midland), wanted to add other, stronger reform measures as amendments to the bill. But progress slowed, and Craddick never got the chance. That’s a familiar story for legislation reforming consumer loans, such as payday, auto title and property tax loans—only simple and carefully negotiated bills can make it through the process, and advocates are divided between those who want to push for more and those who are happy with incremental reform.

But SB 1282 wound up on the Local & Consent calendar on Wednesday, giving the House one more chance to send it to the governor’s desk. That’s when Márquez knocked it off the calendar—a procedural move that effectively killed it.

“There was concern that language in there could promote cash lending. So it was something that we probably should have debated on the House floor,” said Márquez. “I’m sorry it was there so late, but it wasn’t something we could just pass without debate.”

But opening the bill up to amendments could have tanked it by making the legislation unpalatable to lenders—something that has happened to other payday lending bills in the past. And the result of the bill’s death is simply that state regulators will go for the next two years without the tools they say they need to do their job.

Moorhead, who denies the bill would have “promote[d] cash lending,” says the bill was a simple matter of upholding good government. “It seems irresponsible for legislators to talk so much about the need for efficiency and accountability at agencies, and then to allow routine agency legislation to become collateral in political showdowns.” She added: “It’s a small moment in a legislative session that has been full of big moments, but that should not be an excuse to let it go by unnoticed.”

Márquez, though, puts the blame back on the reformers. If they wanted the bill to pass, she says, “they probably should have involved more of us in the conversation about it.”

wimberley flood damage

 

A Hays County groundwater protection bill that’s had a tumultuous ride through the Legislature has been dramatically revived in the session’s final days, and sources says Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s recent tour of the Wimberley flood damage is what resurrected the legislation.

After Patrick visited the flood zone in Hays County on Thursday he asked local officials if there was anything he could do to help. They told him that House Bill 3405, which would extend the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District to western Hays County, could use a little help from on high.

“County officials were able to talk to the lieutenant governor and leadership of the House yesterday with the encouragement of our own state official,” said Hays County Commissioner Will Conley, a Republican who represents Wimberley and met with Patrick. “We were just able to draw attention to the legislation and how important it is to our community, and the most powerful men in Texas made some agreements and moved it forward.”

For much of Thursday the legislation looked dead, after a technical objection raised by Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-El Paso) prevailed. Rep. Jason Isaac (R-Dripping Springs) looked defeated after he learned of the news, while citizens in Wimberley, who’ve fought for months to bring groundwater regulation to an unregulated “white zone” of the county targeted by a for-profit aquifer-mining company, reacted with disgust. But as the House was wrapping up for the day, the House parliamentarian suddenly reversed his decision—an extreme rarity in the Legislature. Other legislators gathered around a tearful Isaac as he expressed shock.

Isaac said he had suggested Conley talk to Patrick on the lieutenant governor’s tour of flood-ravaged Wimberley, but he told the Observer he didn’t think Patrick had anything to do with the parliamentarian’s sudden change of heart. “I’m just pleased that I was on the winning end of a mistake,” Isaac said.

Regardless, Conley said his conversation got the job done.

“Those two gentlemen took action on behalf of Hays County,” Conley said, referring to Straus and Patrick.

In a statement, Patrick said he was “grateful that the House reversed the P.O.O. because it is the number one legislative issue for Hays County. After visiting Wimberley to survey the flood damage, I believe this bill is even more critical.”

Dan Patrick
Texas Senate
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick

House Bill 3405 is still not a done deal. For the bill to pass, both chambers must appoint a conference committee to work out details in the bill and bring a corrected version of the bill to a vote in the House and Senate.

“There are a lot of unseen forces who seem to have had their hands in this,” said Isaac. “We just hope that they’ll keep their hands out of it at this time.”

For a local groundwater bill, usually a matter of only passing concern outside a legislative district, HB 3405 has been buffeted by powerful forces, many of them hidden from public debate on the legislation. One is Electro Purification, which wants to pump 5 million gallons per day from the Trinity Aquifer and sell it to customers in the I-35 corridor.

Another may be Greg LaMantia, a wealthy wholesale Budweiser distributor from McAllen and a major Democratic donor. LaMantia shares a lobbyist with Electro Purification, Ed McCarthy, a skilled legislative hand on water matters. LaMantia owns a 5,000-acre ranch near Wimberley that’s located partially in the “white zone.” Last session Isaac passed a bill creating a municipal utility district, or MUD, on LaMantia’s Needmore Ranch. MUDs are often used by developers to provide water and wastewater services for dense subdivisions. Because of tremendous pressure from Hays County citizens worried about a large residential development in a water-scarce and environmentally-sensitive area, Isaac included a provision in last session’s legislation prohibiting the Needmore Ranch MUD from pumping groundwater for new homes.

But under a separate bill carried by Isaac and Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) this session, that provision banning the use of local water would be eliminated if HB 3405 passes.

“Now that we will potentially have a groundwater district in place, we don’t necessarily need those provisions in the MUD,” Isaac said. Allowing LaMantia to pump groundwater at Needmore, Isaac said, is “a way to get additional outside support in passing our 3405.”

Colt Peacemaker

Debate on a bill that would allow license-holders to openly carry handguns pitted friends against friends and created some strange alliances in the House on Wednesday. After a topsy-turvy debate, lawmakers voted to send the bill to conference committee in an effort to try to strip the bill of an element that some say could endanger police. The move could unexpectedly put open carry legislation—once considered a done deal—in jeopardy.

At issue was a controversial amendment to the open carry legislation that’s on its second life. Otherwise, House Bill 910 would be sailing to the governor’s office right now. The amendment in question, originally authored by Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) and Rep. Matt Rinaldi (R-Irving), would ban police officers from stopping someone solely because they are visibly carrying a handgun.

The amendment was stripped from the bill in a committee before the Senate took it up. Then it was resurrected on the Senate floor by Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas), a staunch supporter of so-called constitutional carry (allowing individuals to carry a handgun openly, without a license). The “Dutton amendment” has the same effect as constitutional carry; if a police officer can’t stop you if you’re openly carrying a handgun, then why would you need a license?

Dutton actually strongly opposes open carry, and he voted against the bill when it first came up in the House last month. On Wednesday, however, he voted to “concur,” voting for the bill with the amendment the Senate had added. His reasoning? If open carry is going to be law, he wants to make sure that it applies “to people who look like [him].”

Dutton said he wanted to ensure that the law would be applied equally to black and white citizens. If there’s a black person and a white person standing on the same street, each carrying a gun, Dutton posits that the black person would be approached by a police officer first, and potentially harassed for doing something that’s legal.

Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) supported the amendment for the same reason, saying in a statement last week: “Our state has an unfortunate record on racial profiling and selective enforcement when it comes to detaining people of color.”

Eight Democrats voted to accept the Senate version today, five of whom had previously voted against the legislation.

Today’s debate split Republicans, too. Those in support of Dutton’s amendment argued that the amendment simply codified and clarified what is already law: Police officers aren’t supposed to detain a person unless they have a reasonable suspicion that the suspect is committing a crime. Under Dutton’s amendment, police could still use that standard.

Of course, that’s a bit of a problem considering police—and the general public—will have, up until the passage of open carry, lived in a society in which anyone openly carrying a weapon is automatically suspicious.

Two former police officers, Rep. Allen Fletcher (R-Cypress) and Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford) both support open carry, but urged the body to send the bill to conference committee, to try to reach an agreement on the amendment. They argued that it would make police officers less safe.

“We’re making a quantum shift here going into an open carry world,” King said.

Law enforcement officials from around the state gathered at the Capitol Wednesday to speak against the Dutton amendment and urge lawmakers to send the bill to conference committee, where they hope it will be stripped out. They called on Gov. Abbott to veto the bill if the provision remains on the bill after conference. Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said that the amendment would allow criminals to carry weapons “with impunity.”

Ultimately, the House heeded the advice of law enforcement, and 79 representatives voted against accepting the Senate changes, sending the bill to conference committee. That left some lawmakers predicting the end of open carry, and worrying that it won’t get out of committee quickly enough to pass before the Legislature wraps up on Monday. Rinaldi tweeted: “The House just killed Open Carry.”

The appointed House conferees include the bill’s author, and other supporters of open carry, which gives the legislation a good chance to get out of committee. Still, Rinaldi might be on to something. At a Texas Tribune event Thursday morning, Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) said he’d filibuster open carry if given the opportunity. The bill must go back to both chamber for final approval once it leaves committee, so if it gets out late enough, Rodriguez could have the power to keep open carry from becoming law.

LGBT homeless youth
John Wright
Thrive Youth Center residents Chanel Versace, left, and Damien Pena, who both identify as transgender, talk behind the front desk in San Antonio last month.

 

When Chanel Versace’s father discovered she was gay at 17, he threatened to kill her.

“He said, ‘I’m not going to have a faggot as a son. If that’s the case, I’ll kill your ass and then I’ll kill myself,'” Versace recalls. “So I’m like, ‘If that’s the case, I’ll just run away.'”

Versace, a California native who now identifies as transgender, ended up in San Antonio, where she lived on the streets for four years.

Versace would occasionally stay at the city’s Haven for Hope homeless shelter, but because of threats and harassment from other residents over her transgender status, she felt safer under a bridge.

In February, Versace became one of the first residents at Thrive Youth Center, the only homeless shelter in Texas specifically for LGBT people.

Thrive Youth Center occupies its own wing on the bottom floor of an office building at Haven for Hope, and unlike the main shelter, it includes private rooms and a bathroom with stalls and shower curtains.

Now 23, Chanel is finishing her GED and plans to become a certified nursing assistant. Since moving to Thrive, she’s also legally changed her name and gender marker, important steps toward finding employment.

Sandra Whitley, executive director of Thrive Youth Center, said Versace’s story is typical of many youth she encounters.

Studies suggest up to 40 percent of the nation’s 1.6 million homeless youth identify as LGBT, with most having been kicked out or run away due to parental rejection. Whitley said she believes the figure is more like 50 percent in San Antonio and other parts of the South, but no study has ever examined how many homeless youth in Texas are LGBT.

Whitley and other advocates are hoping that will soon change, thanks to a proposal from Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) that is on its way to the governor’s desk after clearing the House and Senate. Under House Bill 679, the state would conduct a study of homeless youth, including collecting data, examining needs, identifying funding sources and developing a strategic plan.

Turner said the study would take a “holistic” look at homeless youth, including who they are and why they’re on the street. He said homeless youth are more susceptible to sex trafficking than any other group.

“There are schools within my district that have washers and dryers at the schools because there are kids who are homeless and don’t have a place to wash their clothes,” Turner said. “There is a need out there, but the depth of that need and whether or not we have adequate services to respond appropriately, we don’t really know. ”

Turner also stressed that the bill applies to all homeless youth, not just those who are LGBT.

“It doesn’t matter whether a child is black or white, Jew or gentile,” he said. “The reality is, these are our children, and I think we have a responsibility to create an environment and a society that gives all of our children an opportunity to succeed and live and prosper.”

Daniel Williams, legislative specialist for Equality Texas, said although the bill doesn’t specifically mention it, he’s confident the study would include information about whether homeless youth are LGBT. Either way, Equality Texas backs the measure and considers it one of the few pro-LGBT bills to ever pass the Legislature.

Sandra Whitley, executive director at Thrive Youth Center, says shower curtains have been one of the biggest benefits to transgender youth.
John Wright
Sandra Whitley, executive director at Thrive Youth Center, says shower curtains have been one of the biggest benefits to transgender youth.

“Anything that can be done to better serve homeless youth is an LGBT issue,” Williams said.

While there is no data on LGBT homeless youth in Texas, Thrive Youth Center is amassing anecdotal evidence. The shelter—which has five rooms with two beds each for people 25 and up, along with a large dorm room with eight bunk beds for those ages 18 to 24—has been at capacity with a waiting list since opening. Whitley said she hopes to eventually serve those under 18, too.

“LGBT young adults face the same discrimination in regular shelters that they do in school or with their families,” Whitley said, adding that most Thrive residents thus far have been transgender. “To them, it was the biggest thing that they had privacy while taking a shower.”

After selling her business and devoting her life to helping LGBT youth a few years ago, the 53-year-old Whitley quickly zeroed in on the “epidemic” of homelessness. She recalled that when she came out as lesbian in 1975 in the Texas Panhandle, her parents put her in an institution.

“I think society as a whole has gotten better, because there’s gay marriage in many states, it’s about to be in every state,” Whitley said. “But I think because it’s gotten better in society as a whole, kids are coming out at an earlier age, and their parents for religious reasons or whatever reasons are kicking their kids out of their house.”

Whitley said most residents have been on the streets since they were 13 or 14. But thanks to Thrive, they finally have a safe haven.

Rep. Byron Cook
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State Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana)

It was supposed to be one of Gov. Greg Abbott’s first signature initiatives: ethics reform. What a fine way to signal the beginning of a new era, one washed of that Paint Creek musk. Ethics, it is generally held, are good. Reform? Even better. People love Ethics Reform.

There was never a great deal of substance to Abbott’s outline of what constituted cleaning up Texas politics. And the lawmakers who hammered out the details didn’t exactly reach for the stars either. As it unfolded during the session, Ethics Reform started to seem like it was more about political positioning than a substantive attempt to attack political corruption. But that didn’t much matter. The point was to Get Something Done.

We’re a few steps closer to mission accomplished. On Tuesday, nearing the end of a brutal death-march through the Legislature, Senate Bill 19, the main package of new ethics laws, limped to a preliminary House vote of 96 to 48.

It was in dubious shape when it left the Senate floor a few weeks back—some of its key provisions were gutted against its authors’ wishes in the upper chamber, and the bill was stuffed with petty and silly amendments. And the sweeping changes made to the House version, including provisions to bring transparency to political machines that run on so-called “dark money,” make it unlikely that a strong draft of SB 19 will make it to the governor’s desk in time—the House and Senate versions are so far apart that a conference committee would essentially have to write a third bill from scratch, one that might not have much in the way of teeth.

In an extremely strong statement, the bill’s author, state Sen. Van Taylor (R-Plano), “expressed astonishment for the elimination of meaningful ethics reforms” and faulted “Chairman Bryon Cook” [sic] for “one of those head shaking moments” that tore “a page from Hillary Clinton’s playbook.”

The debate in the House was, in effect, a proxy war between conservative moneyman Tim Dunn and House Speaker Joe Straus, between the House and the Senate, between the governor and the Legislature, and between House Democrats and the clock.

The bill’s dark money disclosure rules—the most significant addition Rep. Byron Cook made to the bill in committee—represent a threat to conservatives aligned with the wing of the Republican party associated with Midland moneyman Tim Dunn, who have been extremely vocal about denouncing the bill. Once a weak version of the bill emerged from the Senate, they seemed to know what was coming. The agitprop machine went into action—if Cook “repeal[ed] the First Amendment” by demanding shadow groups like Empower Texans disclose their donors, he would be tanking the bill. That didn’t stop him.

State Rep. Matt Rinaldi (R-Irving), a legislator backed by Dunn’s groups, offered an amendment that would return the bill to the Senate draft and kill the dark money rule—but he lost his vote 113-33.

By forcing a dark money disclosure rule through the House—and in the process, killing bills offered by further-right conservatives—Cook was, in effect, giving the middle finger to Dunn and his groups. They’ve hated Cook all session, and their contempt has only seemed to grow. As the chairman of House State Affairs, Cook has probably done more to kill bad right-wing bills than any other House Republican. Now, Cook gave them a reply.

Those conservatives have been raging over the idea that Cook “killed” Abbott’s prized ethics bill, by turning it into something that could not meet Senate approval in time before the end of the session. The Senate GOP, much more aligned with the faction railing against Cook, will almost certainly not let the dark money rule through. But they too deserve a share of the blame.

The version of the bill that escaped the Senate was weak, and became a plaything during floor debate. Senators inserted provisions just to mess with each other as individuals. One successful amendment would require legislators to undergo drug tests. The draft that left the upper chamber was a joke—and though Abbott praised the bill, he had no real reason to do so.

Now, the ethics bill will face a conference committee to resolve difference between the House and Senate, but the two versions are planets apart. There’s less than a week to close the gap and hand the governor something. Given Taylor’s militant statement, it seems doubtful they will.

Abbott made ethics one of his top five priorities for the session, but he probably didn’t have this fight in mind. If the bill doesn’t pass at all, will it be enough for him to call a special session? Or will he declare victory and move on if the bill passes in an emaciated form? Lesson learned: Legislators don’t much like binding themselves with additional rules and requirements. And in the absence of a serious scandal, strong ethics reform might not be possible—at least, certainly not without direction and a strong push from the governor. That was lacking here.

It did, however, give Democrats a chance to fight against the clock. At midnight, some of their most hated bills would die. They talked and talked and debated amendments to the bill. By the time debate on SB 19 ended, more than 100 amendments had been filed on legislation authorizing concealed handguns on college campuses. Though Republicans used a procedural maneuver to force a vote on campus carry, several other significant bills died, including legislation banning private insurance coverage of abortion and another measure to tighten the state’s spending cap.

So on one of the last long nights of the 84th Legislature, Cook walked away with a bill that serves as a strong statement about his displeasure with the current state of GOP intra-party politics. And in his wake, more dead bad bills. But if it’s strong, meaningful ethics reform you want, you’ll probably be waiting till next session.

Reproductive rights activists gathered at the Capitol over the weekend to oppose a restrictive abortion bill that limits abortion access for vulnerable teens.
Kelsey Jukam
Reproductive rights activists gathered at the Capitol over the weekend to oppose a restrictive abortion bill that limits abortion access for vulnerable teens.

After hours of debate and more than a dozen failed amendments by Democrats, the Texas Senate gave preliminary approval Monday to a major anti-abortion bill that makes it harder for abused or neglected teenagers to get an abortion through the courts.

Current law requires that Texans under 18 get a parent’s permission to have an abortion. However, minors can turn to the courts to seek a confidential judicial bypass when they fear they’ll be abused at home because of their pregnancy or abortion, or if they don’t have a parent to consent.

House Bill 3994, approved with a 21-to-10 vote in the Senate, increases the burden of proof on the minor from a “preponderance of evidence” to “clear and convincing evidence,” essentially making it tougher to secure a bypass. The legislation also restricts where a minor can file a bypass application. Currently, a teen can file her request in any Texas county; HB 3994 restricts it to her home county, a neighboring county if she lives in one with fewer than 10,000 residents, or the county in which the abortion provider is located. Opponents say such a change may jeopardize confidentiality, especially in rural counties where minors might be easily recognized at the courthouse. The bill also increases the number of days the judge has to make a ruling from two to five.

While state Sen. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock), the bill’s Senate sponsor, insisted the changes would provide more “judicial clarity” and better “protections” for abused minors, state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) and his fellow Democrats raised concerns that the bill may violate a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the bypass process must be confidential and expeditious.

“Each day matters in the ability of a person to exercise their constitutional right to obtain an abortion,” Watson said while questioning Perry on the bill. “Time is important because of grave and indelible consequences that can play out if we deny a constitutional right. … The bottom line is, if we’re not careful and we’re not expeditious, as the Supreme Court said, that child becomes a parent.”

Under current law, if a judge doesn’t rule on a minor’s application, her request for a bypass is deemed granted. Perry’s legislation would reverse that: If a judge doesn’t issue a ruling, permission would be automatically denied.

“In essence, the judge can bypass the judicial bypass by simply not ruling,” Watson said during the debate.

Typical of abortion debates this session, attempts by Democrats to curb some of the far-reaching restrictions failed, including an amendment by Watson that would have created an exception for rape, assault or incest victims.

Often, young women turn to the bypass process when they have been raped or sexually abused by a relative. According to 2013 Department of Public Safety data, about 11 percent of sexual assault victims in Texas were abused by a family member. Nearly 10,000 of sexual assault victims in Texas in 2013 were between the ages of 10 and 19.

“I think we want to avoid victimizing the victim, but our policies can do that,” Watson said during debate.

Tina Hester, executive director of Jane’s Due Process, said the bill makes judicial bypass “unattainable” for many vulnerable teens.

“The judicial bypass is in place to protect abused and neglected pregnant teens who cannot safely turn to a parent or cannot find a parent. When a minor is forced to go to her local courthouse in rural communities her confidentiality is near impossible to protect,” she said in a statement. Hester also said the organization will consider pursuing a lawsuit should the bill ultimately become law.

HB 3994 also includes an identification requirement for all abortion-seeking women, albeit one softened from earlier versions. The bill’s original language mandated that all Texans seeking an abortion present a government-issued form of identification, and instructed physicians to “presume” all women are minors until they prove otherwise.

After the constitutionality of that provision was called into question late last week, Perry tweaked the requirement. Now, if a woman doesn’t have one of these acceptable forms of ID, her physician must give her information on how to obtain one. If she still can’t get an ID, a physician can still perform the abortion, but must then report to the Department of State Health Services that an abortion was performed without age verification. While the language has changed, the effect remains the same, said Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas.

“The new version is still vague as to what a provider must do and could open them up to additional liability,” she said in a statement.

HB 3994 will likely get an easy final vote in the Senate on Tuesday. The House passed a version of HB 3994 two weeks ago, but after Monday’s changes in the Senate, the House must approve the updated version, or appoint a conference committee to discuss the differences by Friday.

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