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Floor Pass

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.

Austin State Supported Living Center
Daniel King
The Austin State Supported Living Center

After several lengthy delays for back-room negotiation, the House passed a bill Saturday night that would restructure the Department of Aging and Disability Services, but only after removing a controversial provision to close an Austin institution for the intellectually disabled.

Senate Bill 204 by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D-McAllen), as passed by the Senate, would close the Austin State Supported Living Center, one of 13 state-run institutions for people with intellectual disabilities, in 2017. The measure would also create a commission to identify other centers for later closure.

Closing the Austin facility would have been a major development in a long-running debate between advocates who say state-run institutions are an outdated model for care, and family members who would struggle to find a new home for loved ones who’ve been living at the center.

But a last-minute amendment by Rep. Susan King (R-Abilene) excised any mention of closure. The move drew praise from a group of residents’ relatives who have vehemently opposed shuttering the institution.

State Rep. Susan King (R-Abilene)
State Rep. Susan King (R-Abilene)

“It makes me cautiously optimistic,” said Liz Belile, whose sister lives in a state-supported living center. “I think we are at the beginning of a turn in the tide, possibly. Hopefully. We are seeing that shutting down institutions without preparing the community is proving disastrous.”

Citing high costs and a declining number of residents, the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, which evaluates other state agencies, issued a report last year that recommended closing the Austin center.

“Despite transitioning many residents into the community, Texas has not closed a facility since the 1990s. With the cost to taxpayers growing unsustainably, the State must close some of the most problematic centers,” the report states.

The population at state-supported living centers peaked at around 14,000 residents in 1974. But during the last half-century, partly in response to a series of troubling lapses in care, Texas has worked to move adults with intellectual disabilities out of institutions, and into community-based settings such as group homes. State living centers now serve fewer than 4,000 people, with 215 in the Austin facility.

Texas is not the only state moving people from large institutions to community-based settings. Between 1965 and 2009, the number of Americans with intellectual disabilities in state institutions declined by 85 percent. Many advocates have heralded deinstitutionalization, saying that smaller community settings foster independence.

But some residents’ relatives say they’re more wary of the level of care in privately run group homes. Last fall, a 24-year-old autistic man wandered from a privately run group home in South Austin and was killed by a neighbor as he tried to enter his house.

Citing that case, Rep. Paul Workman (R-Austin) was an outspoken opponent of closing the Austin living center during debate yesterday. Central Texans must have a facility to house our most vulnerable, disabled citizens, Workman argued, and closing the center is not “the panacea some say it is.”

An amendment by Workman would have delayed closing the center by two years, but King’s last-minute amendment rendered it moot. House members voted overwhelmingly, 127-10, in favor of King’s measure to remove any mention at all of closing the facility.

Following Saturday’s vote, Senate and House members will negotiate their differences in conference committee within the next week—so for now, the future of the Austin living center remains uncertain.

A large gun
megan ann/Flickr

Friday’s Senate debate over the licensed open carry of handguns was supposed to be so easy.

Open carry, for all its detractors, had been one of the most fêted issues facing the 84th Legislature, passed pretty early in the session by both chambers. But after the House and Senate open carry bills became hostages of a protracted budget debate, it fell to the upper chamber to pass House Bill 910, the lower chamber’s open carry bill, in the last days of the session.

Much of the debate followed the script: Democrats offered amendments, and those amendments were voted down. Then, things went off the rails.

State Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas) offered an amendment that would prohibit police officers from stopping someone solely because they are visibly carrying a handgun. One Democrat, state Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), and a handful of senior Republicans, began talking in an effort to kill the amendment. But they failed, after an unusually heated and unscripted debate, especially by Senate standards. Huffines won a 19-to-12 vote on his proposal, thanks to an extremely unusual coalition of Democrats and tea party senators. And eight hours after the debate began, the Senate passed HB 910 by the same margin.

Don Huffines
Facebook
Don Huffines

Under Huffines’ amendment, if a law enforcement officer sees a man with a gun walking down the street, the officer can’t ask the man for verification that he’s carrying the gun legally unless the man is also breaking another law. Opponents say the provision amounts to de facto unlicensed open carry. Law enforcement organizations have fiercely opposed it, saying the inability to determine whether someone is carrying a weapon legally poses a lethal threat to them and the public.

But some on the right say the fact that a person is carrying a gun shouldn’t give a police officer the right to compel identification, since carrying a gun is not necessarily an illegal act. And Democrats, particularly those with large minority constituencies, fear giving police officers more pretext to detain citizens. The Huffines amendment mirrored a provision originally added to HB 910 as it passed in the House, authored by state Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) and state Rep. Matt Rinaldi (R-Irving). The House amendment passed easily, 133 to 10.

But when the bill came to the Senate, Dutton and Rinaldi’s provision was stripped from the bill as it went through committee. Huffines’ bid to put it back seemed to seriously unnerve a number of senators, including those who had fought for open carry early on, like state Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls), the bill’s sponsor, and state Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), the chair of the Senate Committee on State Affairs, which initially gave the high sign to this session’s gun bills.

The heated debate pitted two unusual bipartisan coalitions against each other, starring an angry Whitmire and a cutting Huffman, who both grilled Huffines at length about his amendment, charging that the measure would have fatal consequences for police. Huffines did not seem particularly prepared for the fight. At one point, he falsely claimed his amendment had the support of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, bringing an immediate rebuke from the organization on Twitter, which Whitmire raised on the floor.

“Why won’t you listen to the people who put their lives on the line every day for us?” Whitmire asked a generally quiet Huffines. “We are really playing with a dangerous matter. It’s not something that we can afford to be wrong about.”

But as Huffines fumbled easy questions about his bill, he leaned heavily on support from state Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) and state Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), two of the more liberal senators in the chamber. Ellis said his group of allies on the amendment vote was “the strangest bed I have ever slept in.”

They prevailed. The Senate bill, with the cop-limiting amendment in it, will head back to the House for a final vote. If they concur with the Senate changes, the bill will go straight to the governor’s desk. If they don’t, for whatever reason, there could be trouble ahead for the bill.

Huffines has long desired to pass constitutional carry, which would allow individuals to carry handguns openly and without a license. This amendment, as many opposing senators pointed out, was an excellent way to accomplish that goal. If cops aren’t allowed to stop individuals openly carrying guns to ask for proof of their license, why would anyone need to carry a license? It was, it seemed, a great victory for the gun-rights crowd.

Huffman warned of future consequences. “This is a mistake, and I think it’s a mistake the state of Texas will come to regret,” she said. “I was raised with guns, I was raised with hunting. I believe in it. But I believe in some social order, too.”

But as the Senate was wrapping last night, a tweet from Gov. Abbott seemed to call into question the future of the bill as currently drafted. After the lengthy debate over whether the bill would put officers at risk, Abbott seemed to weigh in:

 

Abbott has been getting pressure from law enforcement groups who are nervous about this open carry bill. Was this empty signaling, or was it intended as a warning? Could there be a last-ditch attempt in the coming days to strike Huffines’ hard-won amendment?

tax cuts

Texans, you can put down your pitchforks and douse your torches: The edibles you’ve squirreled away in your emergency bunkers can be safely consumed. Life can begin anew. The tax cut war between House and Senate has been resolved, which means that barring a catastrophic screw-up—say, Comptroller Glenn Hegar realizing he misplaced a decimal point in the revenue estimate—we won’t need that special session on budget issues that legislative observers and hack journalists have worried you all about so much.

Is the package—a $3.8 billion dollar bundle of franchise and property tax cuts—any good? Well, that depends on your point of view. Most everyone, save some Democrats and probably a few right-wing senators, is about to tell you, loudly, that the budget deal is very, very good. There’s a great deal of face-saving to be done. This is the point of the session at which former enemies congratulate each other for the finest and most noble works of government since Periclean Athens: Patrick himself posited that this might have been the best legislative session in the state’s history.

The business lobby did pretty well in the tax deal, but the picture is a bit more complicated for most of the other players. The widespread perception outside the Capitol will be that Patrick “won” by getting some property tax cuts past the House. Meanwhile, Texans are getting a raw deal—with too small a tax break to make a real difference for most, and less money coming down the pike now and in the future for basic services like education.

The deal hasn’t been finalized quite yet, but here’s what we know so far: The two chambers have agreed on a 25 percent cut to the franchise tax. The huge property tax deal Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick bet nearly all of his chips on this session is dead, and in return for its death the House has agreed to a fixed increase in the property tax homestead exemption—from $15,000 to $25,000—which is smaller than Patrick’s original proposal.

The deal lets Patrick save face after abandoning his all-or-nothing approach to his property tax plan. But some of the key provisions that Patrick’s conservative backers most wanted, like tying the homestead exemption to median home values, are gone.

Did he, in the vulgar language of the Capitol, “win”? That depends on what you think the game was. If Patrick’s goal was to provide any kind or flavor of property tax “relief,” he succeeded. But the stakes here were always higher for Patrick than they were for the House.

Privately, many in the lower chamber didn’t really believe in a future for their plan, except as a negotiating tool to curb Patrick’s ambitions. When you take into account the different goals for the two chambers, it is harder to say who came out on top. The House won franchise tax cuts that the business lobby liked more than those offered by the Senate. By offering a larger overall tax cut plan than Patrick did, the House deprived Patrick of the political ammunition of claiming the House was standing in between you and cutting your property taxes. It’s very difficult for legislators to stand against property tax cuts, which are essentially political heroin, and yet they found an effective way to do so.

Patrick wanted and needed a signature victory for this session, his first. After all this furor, Patrick is likely to win for his constituents a smaller-than-expected tax break that most Texas homeowners—the people whom Patrick is expecting to give him credit—won’t even notice, because they’ll be swallowed up by rising rates and home values. Average homeowners might pay about $120 less in property taxes than they might have otherwise, but how many will notice or care as their taxes continue to go up? The only thing that can bend the property tax curve downward is a substantive reorganization of the state’s overall tax structure. Anything else is a band-aid, and not a long-lasting one at that.

It’s not really the stuff that launches political careers skyward. Some of Patrick’s supporters have said the Legislature can rededicate itself to real property tax reform next session, but that seems doubtful. The economy will likely have cooled, and the state may face a budget hole thanks to the school finance lawsuit and other looming budget issues. This session may have been the last, best opportunity to do a big tax cut deal.

If you think Patrick’s original plan stunk, you should be grateful to the House for somehow convincing him to abandon what was his biggest priority, one he kept doubling down on. And in the course of the standoff, the size of the offered tax plan, which at one point had almost reached $5 billion, has shrunk down to $3.8 billion. That’s a sizeable chunk of change the state will need in the 2017 session, or the next special session, when it’s likely to need it very badly.

But there’s still an opportunity cost to going along with even the small property tax cut. In the draft of the budget released by the conference committee Wednesday afternoon, a package of additional money that the House had attempted to allocate to public education had been scaled back from $2.2 billion to $1.5 billion. It cannot be said enough that Texas has not returned to the same level of investment in public services, particularly education, that it had before the last recession.

These are supposed to be flush times, when we store up our surplus and make prudent investments before the next winter. That’s fiscal conservatism. Instead, we’re ensuring that when hard times come again—as they inevitably will—the cuts we’ll have to make will cut even deeper. It’s a fundamentally reckless way to run the state.

Planned Parenthood Rally

After nearly a month of negotiating the two-year state budget, House and Senate budget writers approved a provision this week that excludes Planned Parenthood from the state Breast and Cervical Cancer Services program, which thousands of poor women in Texas rely on for cancer screenings and diagnostic services. The program also allows providers to quickly enroll cancer patients in Medicaid for follow-up treatment.

The idea to exclude the longtime provider originated earlier this session, when lawmakers proposed reorganizing the program’s funding into a three-tiered system, putting Planned Parenthood and other specialized family planning providers last in line to get funds.

In January, key budget writers state Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) and state Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown) acknowledged that they want to keep state money away from health care providers that also perform abortions, even though no public dollars fund the procedure and Planned Parenthood clinics that offer such services are completely independent from its health centers.

Along the way, as the Observer reported, women’s health advocates, providers and Democratic lawmakers raised concerns about the collateral damage that would follow from suddenly cutting major providers from the cancer program.

“This so-called three-tiered approach has the very intended consequence of wiping out at least a provider that is integral in making sure that women that don’t otherwise have access to care,” state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) told the Observer in February. “There are providers that aren’t the targeted provider that also get hurt.”

The negotiated provision approved Wednesday appears to quell the concern that non-Planned Parenthood providers would lose funding from the program. However, it does specify that no abortion provider or an affiliate of an abortion provider (read: Planned Parenthood) may participate in the program. Planned Parenthood has been a BCCS provider for 20 years and serves about 10 percent of the 34,000 women served every year.

“Once again, Texas legislators have ignored their constituents and jeopardized the lives of Texas women,” Yvonne Gutierrez, president of Planned Parenthood Texas Votes, said in a statement released late Wednesday.

Does all this sound familiar? It’s a strategy the Legislature has used in the past: In 2011, the GOP-led Lege implored the same criteria on providers that participated in the Medicaid Women’s Health Program. However, when the Legislature wrote the single largest provider out of the program, the federal government yanked its generous $9-to-$1 matching funds. Texas then created its own Texas Women’s Health Program, without Planned Parenthood. That change, along with nearly $70 million in family planning budget cuts, resulted in the loss of more than 50 family planning clinics statewide.

While the 2013 Legislature restored some of the cut funding, several studies have shown that women are still going without services. According a recent survey by the Texas Policy Evaluation Project, more than 50 percent of women seeking family planning services in Texas reported encountering at least one barrier along the way.

The exclusion of Planned Parenthood from BCCS is just another blow to reproductive and women’s health this session. Bills moving quickly through both chambers will undoubtedly restrict access to abortion for Texas women: Senate Bill 575 bans private insurance plans from covering abortions and would require women to buy a supplemental policy to cover the procedure, and House Bill 3994 would dramatically reduce access to abortion for minors in Texas who are victims of abuse or assault. HB 3994 would also require all women seeking an abortion in Texas to present a government-issued ID.

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