That would be Michael Quinn Sullivan (often referred to as MQS—or mucus) who leads the tea party group Empower Texans dedicated to electing more conservative Republicans to office. Sullivan, who fashions himself as a Texas version of Grover Norquist, and his group have poured money into campaigns of tea party challengers to Republican incumbents, including Speaker Joe Straus and his leadership team.
The Texas House took on Sullivan yesterday, giving initial approval to SB 346 that would require politically active nonprofits to disclose donors who give $1,000 or more. The bill would increase transparency for all political nonprofits, but there’s no doubt who House members had in mind—bill sponsor Charlie Geren even mentioned Sullivan by name during the floor debate. True to form, Sullivan responded on Twitter.
As the Observer‘s Liz Farmer reports, Geren managed to fend off all amendments. Keeping the bill “clean” would steer it away from the Senate, where Sen. Dan Patrick famously tried to have a do-over after the Senate passed the bill earlier in the session and tried to take the bill back from the House (and the House refused).
If Geren can keep the bill identical to the Senate’s version, it would go straight to Gov. Rick Perry. The House must pass the measure on third reading today. Then the attention shifts to Perry, who’s been close with Sullivan. We could soon find out exactly how much pull Sullivan has with the governor.
1. The House approved the Michael Morton Act and a companion bill aimed at reducing wrongful convictions and holding prosecutors accountable for misconduct. The package was backed by Morton, who spent 25 years in prison wrongly convicted of murdering his wife. The Tribune‘s Brandi Grissom has more.
3. Speaking of the budget conference committee, the Tribune reports that conferees could include a rider in the budget that would lay out a framework for Medicaid expansion.
Line of the Day:
“I think that’s what the problem is when you’ve got people running around giving millions of dollars, spending millions of dollars and keeping their contributors a secret.” —Rep. Charlie Geren during yesterday’s debate on SB 346 that would force political nonprofits to disclose major donors.
What We’re Watching Today:
1. The House will vote on several high-profile bills on third reading, including the Michael Morton Act to prevent wrongful convictions and SB 346, MQS’s favorite transparency bill.
2. The Senate Criminal Justice Committee will hear HB 166, which would establish the Tim Cole Exoneration Review Committee to investigate wrongful convictions.
The House gave initial approval to a bill on Monday aimed at tea party activist Michael Quinn Sullivan.
The measure would require politically active nonprofits, like the one Sullivan heads, to disclose their political contributions. It was a win for bill sponsor Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth), who successfully defeated all amendments, keeping the bill “clean.”
Geren wanted to keep the language of Senate Bill 346 the same as the version passed by the Senate. If the Senate and House pass identical versions, the bill would go straight to Gov. Rick Perry, instead of back to the Senate or to a conference committee, where the bill would face an uncertain future. That’s because the Senate approved the legislation but soon after the vote, some senators, namely Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston), said they’d made a mistake and tried to reverse the vote. At that point the legislation had already been handed over to the House. It’s not clear whether Perry would sign the bill or veto it.
Sullivan is known as a Republican enforcer and no friend of House Speaker Joe Straus. Sullivan heads Empower Texans, a nonprofit devoted to electing more conservative Republicans to office and challenging members of Straus’ leadership team. In the past several sessions, he has hassled GOP lawmakers, especially through social media, for not being conservative enough, routinely threatening lawmakers with election challenges.
It’s hard to know who exactly is funding Sullivan’s cause—and that of other political nonprofits—because they haven’t had to disclose their donors. But under the bill, 501(c)(4) nonprofits would be required to report political contributions of more than $1,000.
“If someone wants to hide, my suggestion would be don’t get into the political realm,” Geren said after calling out Sullivan on the floor (which Sullivan thanked him for on Twitter). “If you want to play, play by the same rules everyone else does.”
Geren said there are people who are impacting what the Legislature does and aren’t reporting how their doing it or what politicians are receiving that funding.
“I think that’s what the problem is when you’ve got people running around giving millions of dollars, spending millions of dollars and keeping their contributors a secret,” Geren said.
The major issue some representatives had with the bill is language regarding unions because they aren’t held to the same reporting standards as the non-profit corporations. Geren told representatives he would try to better tailor the language once it passed, but if any amendments were added to clarify it now then the bill would die once back in the Senate. Rep. Richard Peña Raymond (D-Laredo) pressed Rep. Phil King, who introduced an amendment on unions, to confess that he was trying to kill the bill.
“Just say it,” Raymond said. “This is about transparency. Let’s be transparent. Just say ‘I Phil King am trying to kill this bill instead of letting the people of Texas know which rich folk, which big money is going in to big government, going in to buy big government. That’s what this bill is about. People want to know. People want to know who’s pouring in millions of dollars and trying to buy politicians.”
Geren and his supporters convinced enough of the House to put aside all of the proposed amendments and initially approve the bill on a vote of 99-46. The House will take a final vote on the bill today. If it passes unchanged, the bill goes to Perry’s desk.
Wrongful convictions have become all too common in Texas, and every legislative session features another horrific tale of an innocent person spending decades in prison and reform bills aimed at preventing similar injustices in the future—from Tim Cole to Anthony Graves and now Michael Morton.
The House is scheduled to debate Senate Bill 1611—the Michael Morton act—on the floor today. The bill would strengthen requirements that prosecutors turn over all key evidence to defense lawyers. Morton spent 25 years behind bars after being falsely convicted of his wife’s 1986 murder. (You can read about Morton’s case in this seminal Texas Monthly story, which earlier this month won a National Magazine Award for feature writing.) There is strong evidence that prosecutors in the case withheld evidence from the defense that could have proved Morton’s innocence.
As Brandi Grissom notes in the Texas Tribune, the bill will be debated on the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brady v. Maryland, which established that defense lawyers were entitled to exculpatory evidence.
The House will also hear Senate Bill 825, which would give exonorees more time to file a grievance to hold prosecutors accountable for misconduct. Morton helped push both bills forward by personally testifying in support of them earlier in the session.
1. The push to find a sustainable funding stream for TxDOT appears dead this session, the Statesman reports (subscription now required).
2. With just two weeks left in the session, the pressure is showing, as advocacy groups push to get their bills passed. The Tribune profiles Raise Your Hand Texas and the influence it has had on education reform.
3. Ted Cruz received high praise for his intellect from his alma mater over the weekend. But is he ready to run in 2016?
Line of the Day:
“I have a text message right here that says they were for it as it came out of committee.” —Rep. Dan Huberty during House debate on virtual school bill, as quoted in the Trib’s profile of Raise Your Hand Texas.
What We’re Watching Today:
1. The House will hear Senate Bill 15 by Sen. Kel Seliger that would restrict the powers of the boards of regents at Texas’ public universities. The dispute between the the UT Regents and the Lege will once again be a focus of attention.
2. A Senate bill that would ban the use of tanning facilities by minors is also up on the House floor.
Strickland has now spent three sessions promoting bills to treat drug abuse as a public health issue rather than a criminal one. None of the bills she proposed before had passed, but she figured this idea was agreeable enough to survive. Many people die from drug overdoses because the people they’re with—who could save them with a call to 9-1-1—are afraid to invite the cops inside for a look at everyone’s drugs and needles. So she proposed protecting people from possession charges if they call to help someone else who’s overdosing.
“Nobody needs to die in these situations, and the reason people die is because folks are afraid to call for assistance,” is how Strickland explained it.
The Legislature had just passed protections for minors reporting alcohol poisoning, and about a dozen other states had similar laws for drugs.
Johnson, a lawyer who took over Terri Hodge’s old House seat when she went to prison, was headed into his second session when Strickland first made her pitch. Strickland scoured Texas law and drafted what she figured the bill would need to look like.
Johnson liked the idea and sent their version of a bill to the Texas Legislative Council, which returned it with some big changes: the Good Samaritan claim would be a defense to prosecution, but wouldn’t keep you from arrest or charges. Johnson filed the bill on February 22. Strickland figured it was still good enough.
Strickland traveled from Dallas to the Capitol six times this year to support it. In late April Johnson rounded up a few supporters to join her when the bill finally got a hearing. Almost 10 hours into the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee’s meeting, around 8 p.m. that night, Johnson made his case to the committee. Overdoses are the third-most common means of “accidental death” in Texas, he told them, after car crashes and suicide.
“Folks who are addicted to drugs, folks who are experimenting with drugs for the first time, that’s not a constituency that a whole lot of people are sticking out their neck for, but it’s important,” Johnson said. “This isn’t a fundraising bill, this isn’t a donor bill, this isn’t a run-for-higher-office-bill,” Johnson said. “This is a help-save-people’s-lives bill that not a lot of people care about.”
Nine days later the committee approved the bill, 9-to-0, and sent it to the Calendars Committee for its next test. That 15-member committee is a Bermuda Triangle for bills like HB 1743, from which some bills emerge primed for the House floor but many more are lost forever in its fog.
Strickland met with as many Calendars members as she could. “Yes, I see your point,” was the usual answer—still no opposition—but the Capitol was full of people like Strickland, all fighting for the time left over after lobbyists with clout had already left the room.
In the scramble leading up to the House’s May 9 deadline to pass bills, everyone wanted the Calendars members’ time. Strickland left copies of her overdose fact sheet in members’ offices. She happened to catch a flight back to Dallas with Rep. Helen Giddings, who sits on Calendars, and made her pitch in a Love Field terminal.
On Monday May 6, a minor miracle: Calendars voted out HB 1743 and placed it on the House calendar for Wednesday, a day ahead of the deadline.
“I’m just here biting my nails … hoping that the bill will squeak through tonight,” Strickland says as she watches the clock run down. At 7 p.m., around 65 bills stand in the way. “My bill is on page 10 of the agenda, and they probably spent three hours on page five.”
Sometimes on a deadline day like this, the calendar has some noxious bill that either party will do anything to kill. This session the calendar is free of bombs like that but squabbles over too much regulation or who didn’t get invited to negotiations suck up precious minutes. Lawmakers speed things along by rolling up their agendas into paper megaphones and yelling, “Vote!” Complaints about bill language bring the action to a halt for legal debates with the House parliamentarian.
Lawmakers came and went, trading small jokes about the number of hours remaining, and how many of their bills will die. Rep. Larry Gonzales (R-Round Rock), in the back row of the House, removed his shoes and socks, kicked back and let fate take hold of the night.
His proposal to crack down on student loan defaults was third on the list. when the clock hits midnight. Lawmakers crowded around the dais cheered the inescapable demise of one another’s bills. At the end of this session, the stroke of midnight will cut down a few more.
By then, HB 1743 was number 30 on the list. Johnson had two other bills on last night’s calendar that expired with it.
“I was particularly disappointed with this one, because it was good policy,” he says as other lawmakers file past him out the door, each with their own good policy, their favors, and their get-elected-to-higher-office bills that will have to wait another two years.
Johnson knows his bill would have passed if he could have explained it on the floor. ”I’m going to file it next session,” he says, “and file it early.”
The House was on the clock last night: Midnight Thursday marked the deadline to pass bills on second reading. House members churned through quite a few bills in the final hours, but dozens more withered on the calendar and are finished, at least for now (they could resurface as amendments to other bills).
One thing that seemed pretty dead was a plan to use vehicle sales tax revenue and fees to fund growing transportation needs, as the Observer reports. Conservative reps were divided—raising fees is a back-door tax increase, after all—and the author of the bill, Rep. Drew Darby, killed it because Gov. Rick Perry promised to veto any transportation funding unless it’s purely vehicle sales tax revenue.
Rep. Toni Rose (D-Dallas) defends her bill to Rep. Jodie Laubenberg (R-Parker) Thursday night.
Just an hour before the Legislature’s midnight deadline for passing House bills out of the lower chamber, as lightning flashed ominously outside the Capitol, tonight’s debate took a brief and sudden turn back to 2007 when the human papillomavirus and its vaccine dominated the state’s business.
Rep. Toni Rose’s House Bill 1340, allowing children 14 years and up to legally consent to their own immunizations, almost passed on a voice vote without a notice from the floor. But by the time Rose, a Dallas Democrat, offered an amendment to include kids in Texas Juvenile Justice Department custody, the words “immunization” and “minor” attracted some attention.
Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford) went to the back microphone to worry that Rose’s bill would let minors make decisions with life-long effects. “How long does an immunization last?” he asked her.
“I’m not a medical professional,” Rose said.
Rep. Jodie Laubenberg (R-Parker) was next, asking if this consent to immunization would include the minors’ consent to the HPV vaccine, which prevents certain types of cervical cancer and genital warts caused by the sexually transmitted disease.
Laubenberg’s concerns echoed the controversy surrounding Gov. Rick Perry’s 2007 executive order mandating the vaccine for 11- and 12-year-old girls. In response to parents upset about having youngsters inoculated, by default, against a disease they would only get through sexual activity, the 80th Legislature undid Perry’s order.
Rose told Laubenberg her bill would cover the HPV vaccine, along with the others doctors regularly give. Rose said her bill was aimed at kids who often go out and have sex and drink behind their parents backs anyway, and said she doubted they would go behind their parents’ backs to get immunized. Rose also said her bill applied to only routine vaccinations given to kids to prevent illness, and would require a permission form on file from a parent or guardian.
Rep. J.D. Sheffield (R-Gatesville), a family doctor and a co-author on the bill, stopped the shenanigans. “Did you know that it’s recommended that boys get the HPV vaccine now too?” he asked from the back mic. He said there are only two kinds of children who don’t need the HPV vaccine: girls who know they’re going to be nuns and boys who know they’re going to be monks.
On a vote right after those remarks, the bill passed easily. Rose’s bill will be heard tomorrow on third reading before it can head to the Senate.
Rep. Drew Darby spent more than an hour Thursday afternoon defending his plan to cover transportation costs by raising auto registration fees, before postponing the vote until May 28th—the day after the session ends.
The bill now joins the ranks of many others that dying with the midnight deadline for House bills to pass the lower chamber. Darby’s House Bill 3664 would have tacked on a $15 fee to motor vehicle registrations and raised more out of sales tax revenue. The San Angelo Republican’s proposal pitted GOP members against one another, a day after Gov. Rick Perry’s promised to call a special session if lawmakers tried paying for roads with a fee hike.
Darby told the Observer that Perry, who’s been fairly quiet until now this session, said he would only support covering transportation funding funded completely out of sales tax revenue from cars and trucks.
“If one of your objectives of your service is to end divergence, this is your bill to do it,” Darby told his fellow lawmakers today. “There are no other bills to try and address transportation.”
Darby later said the Senate could provide legislation, but it would face the same fragmentation that his bill did in the House.
“I feel a little bit like the skunk at the garden party,” he said.
Rep. George Lavender (R-Texarkana) said he supports new money for roads, but he did not believe Darby’s bill was the right approach. Lavender said fee hike would hit low-income families the hardest.
“There are some people who have older vehicles that this would negatively impact,” Darby allowed. That is why I reduced the fee to $15 … we’re going to have to look at the revenue side. Not just swapping money around.”
But Darby stressed it would take $4 billion a year just to maintain the roads Texas has today.
Rep. Larry Phillips (R-Sherman), chair of the House Transportation Committee, said the state is losing money by not taking care of its roads. He tacked on an amendment allocating some sales tax money for highways, but warned that without a compromise like HB 3664, Texas will have gridlock worse than Los Angeles.
“It’s a failure to lead when we retreat and we hide behind screens of saying ‘Oh we’re all for transportation, and I hear ya Larry.’ Where’s the beef?!” Phillips wondered aloud, before answering himself. “This is beef. This is a good amendment. Are you going to be a leader? Are you going to just be a follower and say, ‘Where do I go, where do I go?’ when we’re going to have economic crisis because we can’t get our transportation through the state.”
“It was an effort to build consensus,” Darby told the Observer after killing his bill. “I think we’re close, but the reality is because of efforts beyond my control, I didn’t want to put members at a disadvantage by voting for something that may or may not become law.”
For anyone worried their neighbor might spy on them with a small unmanned aircraft (aka drones), Lance Gooden, and the Texas House, has your back.
Amid talk of “big brother” and a “brave new world” of technology, the House tentatively passed a bill criminalizing certain types of drone photography on Thursday evening.
House Bill 912, by Republican Rep. Lance Gooden from Terrell and more than 80 co-authors, would make it a Class C misdemeanor to use drones—unmanned aircraft—to take photos, except as exempted by the bill. It would also impose a fine of $5,000 for all photos taken by a drone without permission, or a $10,000 fine for distributing the photos.
Gooden said the whole purpose of the bill is to “ensure that our privacy rights are protected,” and that the fines would only apply if malicious intent could be proved.
Some lawmakers worried about the steep fines and how they’d be enforced.
Republican Rep. Drew Springer (Muenster) asked Gooden how, exactly, officials would enforce this law. How are we going to find the helicopter, Springer asked from the back mic. Are we going to send the police to see who captured the pictures?
Dallas Republican Rep. Jason Villalba clearly came prepared: He brought a tiny toy helicopter up to the back mic and explained that the kids’ toy had a small camera in it. He wanted to know if a kid piloting the toy would be incriminated if it took a photo. Gooden said no.
Lawmakers tacked on a slew exemptions: Satellite imaging by Google is allowed, and any photos taken for planning or maintenance purposes, oil pipeline safety, port authority surveillance, or for agricultural purposes will be allowed.
The Texas Department of Public Safety can also use drones, but it must adopt rules for its own drone usage, and no one, DPS included, can take photos of licensed daycare facilities or public schools.
One amendment, by Villalba, would have broadened the bill’s exceptions to include any legitimate law-enforcement activity.
But the amendment failed on a record vote after Gooden shot it down.
“Let’s just scrap the Fourth Amendment and say you can monitor me at any time, as long as it’s legitimate,” Gooden said. “The point of this bill is to give guidance to law enforcement and say these are all acceptable uses… giving a blanket exemption to anyone defeats the purpose of the motivation behind this bill.”
The bill passed to third reading on a voice vote. The House must pass the bill on to the Senate tomorrow.
There are so many ways to kill a bill in the Texas Legislature, and many bills will meet their demise today: It’s deadline for the House chamber to pass House bills on second reading.
Monday was the last day for House committees to report House bills out favorably to the floor. A lot of bills did not make it, like Denton Republican Rep. Myra Crownover’s House Bill 400, which would have eliminated smoking in certain workplaces throughout the state. The committees’ jobs now are to work on Senate bills.
And today any House bill that hopes to pass this session must get through a second reading by midnight tonight. Then it still has to make it through a third reading and pass on to the Senate by the end of Friday.
There are ways to revive proposals, of course. Texas Tribune reporter Ross Ramsey told StateImpact Texas that late in the session, lawmakers start repeating a weird phrase: “I’m looking for a vehicle,” Ramsey says. It means they’re looking to revive their bill and attach it as an amendment to “a Senate bill or something else that is further along in the process and still alive.”
According to the Legislative Reference Library more than 4,000 House bills were filed this year, up a few hundred from 2011. So far 1,757 have been reported out of committee and the full House has approved 669 bills (last session, 797 House bills passed into law). The House will pass quite a few more before tonight’s deadline.
1. San Antonio Democratic Rep. Mike Villarreal called a press conference yesterday to press for a House committee to pass a watered-down version of the Senate’s payday loan reform bill to the House floor as soon as possible. The Observer‘s Forrest Wilder reports Villarreal is so adamant to stop usury that, if the reform bill doesn’t pass, he promises to travel around the state helping cities draft ordinances to restrict payday loans.
2. The Quorum Report (subscribers only) reports that some Republicans are trying to defund the Public Integrity Unit, a section of the Travis County DA’s office that investigates criminal allegations against state lawmakers. They’re using Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg’s DWI arrest as an argument for moving the PIU from the Travis County District Attorney’s office to the Office of Attorney General Greg Abbott. Word is Republicans would rather be investigated by their own party.
3. A once almost unanimously supported bill to create a new super school and medical school in the Valley is stalling in the Senate after McAllen Sen. Chuy Hinojosa introduced an amendment that would move the school to his district in Hidalgo County, instead of waiting for an advisory board to decide on the location.
4. The Burnt Orange Reporthas the details on a bill passed out of the House yesterday to protect public schools’ right to call a dressed-up holiday pine tree a “Christmas Tree.”
Line of the Day:
“Either way, members of the House should vote to see if we should add more transparency to ourselves… Before we start to ask other elected officials, other agencies, to be more transparent, we should start with ourselves.” —Rep. Giovanni Capriglione on the demise of his transparency bill that would require lawmakers to disclose connections to businesses with government contracts.
In a last-ditch effort to salvage payday loan reform this session, Rep. Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio) called on a recalcitrant House committee to send legislation to the Full House. (Sen. John Carona, a Dallas Republican, was scheduled to attend the press conference but couldn’t make it.)
“It is time for this Legislature to protect consumers from the cycle of debt,” said Villarreal. “It is time. We need to do this now. We should not put it off any longer.”
In April, the Senate passed a surprisingly tough bill that would’ve imposed strict caps on interest rates for payday and auto-title loans, effectively shutting down the $5 billion market in Texas.
But the House Committee on Investments and Financial Services has refused to budge. Villarreal, who chairs the committee, said today that he is the only ‘yes’ vote on his payday reform bill, even though his version is significantly weaker than what the Senate passed. The committee has two Democrats and five Republicans. In a hearing on April 29, members of the committee spent hours perishing the thought of regulating payday and title loans, which often carry interest rates in excess of 500 percent APR. “It allows individuals to exercise their freedom,” said Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson (R-Waco).
Villarreal’s approach would limit the size of loans based on borrower income; limit the number of loans a consumer can have at any given time; restrict the number of “rollovers” or refinances; and pre-empt cities from enacting their own payday regulations.
That approach, Villarreal said, respects markets while “also recognizing our state’s long history and tradition of moral and legal opposition to usury.”
If the Legislature fails to do something meaningful, Villarreal promised to travel around the state, helping cities pass ordinances to regulate the industry. So far, Austin, Dallas, Denton, El Paso and San Antonio have enacted ordinances.