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Floor Pass

Fracking protesters outside the Capitol
Patrick Michels
Lela Lofton, right, and Amanda Renfro in an overnight protest against attempts to curtail local control of fracking.

 

Despite vociferous opposition from local elected officials, environmentalists and citizens, many Democrats in the Texas Legislature are supporting controversial legislation that would strip local governments of the power to regulate or ban fracking.

House Bill 40, by Rep. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo), is one of 11 measures in the Legislature filed in response to a fracking ban approved by Denton voters in November. Darby’s bill, which was temporarily delayed on Tuesday, would overturn Denton’s fracking ban, Dallas’ de facto prohibition on drilling and other cities’ oil and gas regulations, possibly even rules about the distance between rigs and homes not deemed “reasonable.”

Rep. Senfronia Thompson, a progressive Democrat and the longest-serving woman legislator in the House, is one of eight Democrats sponsoring the legislation.

“I think that fracking is a safe mechanism, which they can use to be able to extract oil,” she said. Asked about the practical impact of the bill and whether it would allow oil and gas companies to challenge ordinances they don’t deem “reasonable,” Thompson said, “You’re asking me a legal question, and I haven’t had oil and gas law since I was in law school.”

Most of the Democrats who signed onto HB 40 are from areas that don’t contend with the hazards of urban drilling: earthquakes, noise, pipelines through yards and air and water pollution. None are from North Texas, where drilling rigs and other oil-and-gas infrastructure often sits uncomfortably close to homes, churches and businesses.

“The cities are the ones who are truly affected, and we’re taking that out of their hands and saying that we’re going to be the ones doing it?” said Rep. Nicole Collier, a Democrat from Fort Worth who plans to vote against HB 40. “They’re the ones who have to answer every day, and we’re taking that out of their hands.”

On Monday night, activists set up a 15-foot mock drilling rig outside the Capitol and staged an all-night vigil in preparation for the vote that was expected to happen Tuesday. A technical error forced legislators to postpone HB 40, which likely will be back on the floor as soon as Friday.

Rep. Senfronia Thompson displays a hanger during a contentious abortion debate on the House floor in early July.
Patrick Michels
Rep. Senfronia Thompson displays a hanger during a contentious abortion debate on the House floor in early July.

Collier said she hopes to add a provision to the bill that would reimburse cities for costs associated with accidents, such as the leaking gas well that led to an evacuation of hundreds of Arlington residents over the weekend. But the Texas Municipal League, the Texas Oil and Gas Association and Darby have pledged to support the current version of the bill and oppose any changes. The municipal league, which represents local government, wrote on its website that “it’s nearly certain that further amendments to the bill would make it worse instead of better.”

In the Senate, a similar bill was unanimously voted out of committee in March. Two Democrats, Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) and Sen. Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio) voted for SB 1165. Zaffirini represents a portion of the Eagle Ford Shale, one of the most active shale plays in the world. She chairs the booster-ish Eagle Ford Shale Legislative Caucus.

Why would Democrats, who’ve complained all session that Republicans are eroding the long Texas tradition of local control, support HB 40?

“Because they can and not have any harm,” Collier said, referring to blowback from constituents.

Former Fort Worth state Rep. Lon Burnam, now a volunteer lobbyist with Public Citizen, had some tough words for his former colleagues. “These people have been here too long and have become jaded,” he said.

He said Democratic support for overturning fracking regulations is testament to the financial power of the oil and gas industry. Oil and gas interests donated $5.5 million to legislators in the 2014 cycle, according to a recent Texans for Public Justice report, about 17 cents of every dollar contributed during that period.

Environmentalists complain that banning fracking bans not only endangers the health and safety of citizens but also constitutes an assault on local democracy. If passed, HB 40 would overturn the Denton and Dallas measures that ban fracking. It’s also expected to invalidate many other municipalities’ ordinances governing fracking.

Fracking equipment near homes in Denton.
Fracking equipment near homes in Denton.

Supporters of the bill, backed by the power and money of the Texas oil and gas industry, argue that the Railroad Commission’s authority to regulate oil and gas operations preempts local governments from being able to ban or otherwise impede the practice.

The bill uses broad and convoluted language to describe allowable city ordinances. Only “commercially reasonable” laws pass muster. Cities also could only set rules for activities “at or above the surface of the ground”—the bill specifically mentions noise, lights, traffic and fire and emergency response—and the rules couldn’t prohibit a “reasonably prudent operator” from extracting oil or gas. Ordinances that have been in effect for five years and have allowed “oil and gas operations … to continue during that period” would generally be considered “commercially reasonable.” Got all that?

Opponents argue that industry attorneys will use the language to topple any rule they don’t like and take down established ordinances wherever they like.

Andrew Dobbs, who organized the Monday night vigil for Texas Campaign for the Environment, said he was frustrated to see Democrats playing along.

“I hear Democrats in this state say all the time, ‘If only we could get people to go out and vote for us, if only people didn’t stay home on Election Day,’ and then they go and do stuff like this and they wonder why people don’t want to vote for them,” he said.

Reynold.Ron
John Wright
Rep. Ron Reynolds speaks during Freedom Advocacy Day on the north steps of the Capitol on Monday.

Monday’s Freedom Advocacy Day at the Texas Capitol couldn’t have come at a more critical time.

With two anti-LGBT bills scheduled for hearings this week, hundreds of gay-rights supporters rallied on the north steps before fanning out to lawmakers’ offices during the lobby day organized by Equality Texas.

Rep. Ron Reynolds (D-Missouri City), who spoke at the rally, drew parallels to the civil rights movement, saying that just like racial bias, discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is “dead wrong.”

“We must have that same commitment, that same fire and determination, that those civil rights workers had,” Reynolds said. “They were willing to do anything, no matter what it took, to make sure they eradicated those discriminatory laws.”

With several attendees holding signs saying, “Don’t Indiana My Texas,” Reynolds also referenced backlash from major corporations over an anti-LGBT religious freedom law in the Hoosier State.

“People came forward from all over America to stand up against bigotry, and we have to do that same thing in Texas,” he said.

Republican lawmakers have introduced a record 22 anti-LGBT bills in the 84th Texas Legislature, but thus far only two dealing with same-sex marriage, an issue likely to be settled by the U.S. Supreme Court, have had hearings. And with fewer than 50 days remaining before sine die, time may be running out.

Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin)
Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin)

“Once you’re a couple of weeks past Easter, you’re in danger of not passing your bill,” said Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin). “This week, maybe next week, if you haven’t at least had a hearing, then you’re in trouble.”

House Bill 2801, by Rep. Gilbert Peña (R-Pasadena), which would prohibit schools from allowing students to use restrooms and similar facilities according to their gender identity, will be heard Wednesday by the House Committee on State Affairs. House Bill 3864, by Rep. Scott Sanford (R-McKinney), which would allow child welfare providers that contract with the state to discriminate based on sincerely held religious beliefs, will be heard Wednesday by the House Committee on Juvenile Justice & Family Issues.

Peña, who previously said the goal of HB 2801 is protecting students’ privacy, refused to further discuss the bill this week. Sanford didn’t respond to messages seeking comment about HB 3864.

Chuck Smith, executive director of Equality Texas, said he believes HB 3864 is designed to allow faith-based adoption and foster care agencies to refuse to place children with gay parents. But he said the bill is written so broadly that it would sanction discrimination based on a variety of factors, including minority religious beliefs, and even against children themselves.

“I think it points to the level of extremes that we’re reaching if in fact, in the interests of so-called religious freedom, we’re actually targeting children and youth in our state, and that I think is despicable and not a place where we want to go,” Smith said.

Smith said HB 2801 would take decisions about restroom use by transgender students out of the hands of educators, who are currently addressing it on a school-by-school and district-by-district basis. Under the bill, schools would be liable for damages if they allow transgender students to use restrooms according to how they identify.

“This legislation amounts to bullying and harassment of transgender students to the point of placing a bounty on their heads for them to be turned in for using a restroom,” Smith said.

Kenneth D. Upton Jr., senior counsel at the LGBT civil rights group Lambda Legal, said HB 2801 would run afoul of Title IX, which the U.S. Department of Education has said prohibits discrimination based on gender identity in schools.

Israel noted that even if the bills clear committee, she helped derail two anti-LGBT budget amendments on the House floor two weeks ago.

“If the budget night was any indicator, some of my colleagues who identity themselves as Republican don’t want to have these kinds of battles any more than we do,” Israel said.

Watch speeches from Monday’s rally by Reynolds and openly LGBT Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-El Paso) below.

State Rep Phil King
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State Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford)

After passing one of the most extreme anti-abortion laws in the country in 2013, conservative lawmakers have filed at least four bills this session targeting a legal process that allows minors seeking an abortion to do so without their parents’ consent.

Under current law, if a woman under 18 can’t get permission from a parent for an abortion—often because of abuse or repercussions from her family—she can seek a legal, confidential bypass from a judge. However, proposed laws would make the bypass process harder, longer and more cumbersome, abortion rights advocates warn.

In applying for a bypass, a minor must prove to a judge one of three reasons: that she is mature and well-informed enough to have an abortion without her parents’ consent; that notifying her parents is not in her best interest; or that notifying her parents would lead to physical, sexual or emotional abuse.

A bill by state Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford), scheduled for a hearing in the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee today, would require that a minor prove all three grounds rather than just one, creating a threshold that could be impossible to overcome for many pregnant teens.

“Together, if the standard were changed, Texas would have one of the most, if not the most, restrictive judicial bypass laws in the country,” said Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas. “It’s essentially a ban on abortion for anyone under the age of 18 unable to involve a parent.”

When minors seek a judicial bypass, the reasons are often complex and delicate. Jane’s Due Process reports that in 2013, 321 pregnant teens reached out to the organization for legal help, information on the bypass process, or pregnancy options. Of those, 17 percent of teens who sought help through Jane’s Due Process reported that they had experienced sexual or physical abuse by a parent at home, and 37 percent feared being kicked out or disowned for being pregnant. Sixteen percent were orphans or had no way to contact a parent for consent to an abortion.

“My older sister got pregnant when she was 17,” according to one of more than a dozen stories of anonymous pregnant teens posted on the Jane’s Due Process website. “I was in the kitchen when she told my mother. My mother pushed her against the wall, slapped her across the face, and then grabbed her by the hair, pulled her through the living room out the front door and threw her off the porch. I don’t know where my sister is now. I’m considered the good daughter. But I know what my mother is capable of.”

Two additional pieces of legislation that have yet to be scheduled for a hearing—House Bill 3994 by state Rep. Geanie Morrison (R-Victoria) and House Bill 2531 by state Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth)—are billed as “reform” legislation by anti-abortion groups, but abortion rights leaders see the bills as destroying the bypass process, which was first set up by the Texas Legislature in 1999.

“Minors who seek a judicial bypass don’t do it for frivolous reasons,” said Tina Hester, executive director of Jane’s Due Process. “They know what’s happened to their older sister or older cousins, and they have a real threat. The majority of young women in Texas do involve a parent; this is a safety net that they’re trying to dismantle.”

The two bills would require that a woman seeking an abortion provide her physician with a government-issued identification document to ensure that she is not younger than 18 years old. Morrison’s bill even requires that a physician “presume that a pregnant woman is a minor” unless she presents a government-issued ID.

Morrison’s and Krause’s bills also limit which courts a judicial bypass case can be heard. Currently, an attorney can file a bypass application on behalf of a minor in any county in Texas. Krause’s bill would mandate attorneys file in the minor’s county of residence, while Morrison’s would require the application be filed in a minor’s county of residence; a neighboring county, if her home county has a population of 10,000 people or fewer; or the county in which her abortion provider is located.

Limiting the venue may compromise confidentiality and privacy, especially in small, rural parts of the state, said Susan Hays, an Austin-based family law attorney who works with Jane’s Due Process.

HB 3994 and HB 2531 both increase the burden of proof from a “preponderance of evidence” to “clear and convincing” evidence and require that the minor seeking a bypass appear in court in person.

“The bills have nothing to do with helping pregnant girls,” Hays said. “[They have) everything to do with punishing them and exposing them, and therefore endangering them.”

Dennis Bonnen
State Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton)

Who would have thought the biggest fight of the 84th Legislature would be over cutting taxes, an act normally beloved in the halls of the Capitol? Most of the headlines we’ve seen this session have been over guns, gay rights, the border and vouchers, but as the session comes to a close over the next month and a half, it seems likely that the headlining bout will be over two competing tax cut plans. It’s a showdown that is hugely consequential for the future of the state. And the plans offered by the two chambers seem, for now, irreconcilable.

There was some strangeness around the matter of tax cuts early on, as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott seemed to compete over who would call for the biggest, boldest proposal. Dan Patrick asked for $4 billion initially, so Abbott called for $4.4 billion. The Senate answered with a proposal for $4.6 billion in cuts. All the while, the House budget writers kept mum, leaving room in their early budget proposals for tax cuts, but not producing a detailed plan at first.

The Senate proposal is strangely nonsensical. It chops the franchise tax, which is acceptable to almost all parties at the Lege, even Democrats. But the rest of Patrick’s proposal seems less than ideal. He aims to cut Texans’ property taxes. But the state doesn’t administer property taxes; local jurisdictions do. Patrick’s proposals would reimburse local jurisdictions to some degree, but other Senate proposals would greatly restrict the ability of cities and counties to take in revenue.

So Patrick would get to take credit for cutting taxes now, even though local governments around Texas, which are already swimming in debt and face uncertain fiscal futures, would pay the price. There’s also the fact that to make the math work on his proposal, Patrick wants to allow legislators to circumvent the constitutionally enshrined spending cap to pay for tax cuts, now and in the future…. while also tightening the spending cap to ensure that the state has less money to spend. If that doesn’t make sense to you, that’s because it doesn’t make sense.

The House took its time to respond. But last Wednesday, a top lieutenant of House Speaker Joe Straus, state Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton), released the House tax plan. The lower chamber would cut franchise taxes too, but property tax relief is nowhere to be found. Instead, the House would lower the state sales tax rate from 6.25 percent to 5.95 percent.

Sales taxes are paid by everyone, not just property owners. And cutting the state sales tax doesn’t hurt local jurisdictions in the same way. What’s more, Bonnen and the House gave themselves a trump card—their tax plan totals $4.87 billion, allowing them to cutely claim that Patrick wants “smaller tax cuts.” Bonnen’s plan will have public testimony on Tuesday morning at the House Committee on Ways and Means meeting.

Neither tax cut package will mean much to the average Texan—certainly not compared to the size of the hole it blows in the state budget. The property tax cuts might mean about $200 a year for the average homeowner. But if you don’t pay property taxes—if you live in an apartment, for example—you get nothing.

Bonnen, meanwhile, boasts that the sales tax cut could mean $172 a year for “a family of four.” If that savings comes only from the reduced sales tax the family pays at stores, it assumes that the family of four is spending $57,000 on taxed goods every year, which is just a little bit less than the median total income of a four-person family in Texas.

To be fair, Bonnen’s analysis probably also assumes the family will save money from cheaper goods and services as a result of the business-side implications of the tax. Big businesses are the main beneficiaries of a sales tax cut, though its advocates would say the savings will get passed on to you.

To put it a different way, under the House plan, you’ll save 30 cents with each purchase of $100 of taxable goods. For every $1,000 of stuff you buy, then, you’ll be able to afford three hours of parking in downtown Austin. Oh happy day!

But the efficacy of these plans is beside the point—the fight has become a measuring contest of the virility of each chamber. Patrick slammed Bonnen’s plan, which he said in an unusually cutting statement was “out of step with Texans, my office, the Senate and the Governor.” He noted that Abbott had called for property tax relief in his State of the State speech and implied Abbott was on his side in this dispute, continuing his habit of putting words in the governor’s mouth, which is surely appreciated by Abbott’s team. (On Thursday, Abbott spoke briefly about tax cuts in Houston but said nothing specific on the issue of property vs. sales tax cuts.)

During a TV interview, Bonnen punched back. “It’s not my role to say what the governor thinks about tax cuts. Respectfully, it’s not the lieutenant governor’s either,” he said. Why was Patrick so focused on property taxes? “I think he’s just concerned about campaign promises he’s made,” said Bonnen.

How does this get resolved? Big business is steadfastly behind the House plan, while Patrick’s base loathes property taxes. Patrick and state Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), who runs the Senate Finance Committee, show no sign of backing down. “I have never had a constituent tell me they want a cut in sales tax—ever,” Nelson told reporters. “I’ve had lots of constituents come and complain about property taxes.”

Patrick can’t retreat completely from his property tax plan—he’s too far in. And, moreover, he needs a big and flashy signature accomplishment for his first session. He came in with too much bluster, and with too many promises made to the people who elected him, to leave the session with a few smaller education bills, and some money for border security wrestled from the House. This was a man who, in his inaugural address, promised to “secure the border in this session” and invoked the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. to sell the changes he wants to make to state government. One imagines him staring intently at a full bathtub, attempting to part the waters with his mind.

Whatever his future plans are, he needs a trophy come June. And at this point, the best candidate for that trophy is a tax plan that doesn’t do much for most Texans, blows a giant hole in the budget of state and local governments, and requires trick budget math to pull off. Go figure, right? And the House is doubling down in its efforts to keep it from him with bad policy of its own.

TexasCompetes

With more than 20 anti-LGBT bills pending in the Texas Legislature, a coalition of major employers in the state — including Dell, Samsung and Southwest Airlines — is making the business case for fair treatment of gay, bisexual and transgender people.

More than 50 businesses have joined the coalition, called Texas Competes, by signing a pledge saying LGBT inclusion is essential to maintaining the Texas brand, attracting top talent and new companies to the state, and supporting a healthy tourism industry.

The full list of businesses, which includes 13 from the Fortune 500, will be unveiled Tuesday at a press conference in Austin featuring representatives from the Texas Association of Business, South By Southwest and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.

Texas Competes spokesman James Shackelford said the coalition won’t take positions on specific legislation and that the effort has been in the works for months, long before anti-LGBT religious freedom laws in Indiana and Arkansas sparked historic backlash from the corporate sector.

“But obviously the timing, when it’s launching and when we’re going public with it, is important,” Shackelford told the Observer.

The Texas Association of Business, the state’s powerful chamber of commerce, has come out against two religious freedom amendments that critics say would enshrine a license to discriminate against LGBT people in the constitution. However, dozens of other measures also target LGBT rights, from statutory religious exemption bills to proposals that would ban local nondiscrimination protections and transgender restroom use.

“Texas is an economic powerhouse because it’s a place where talented people, entrepreneurs and companies want to call home. But our competitiveness is in jeopardy if Texas does not become a place that is welcoming to LGBT workers and families,” Texas Competes advisory board member and former Dell CFO Tom Meredith said in a statement. “Businesses that embrace diversity are doing both the right thing and the economically smart thing.”

UPDATE, 4/14: Below is an update list of those who’ve signed the Texas Competes pledge:

State Rep. Ron Reynolds (D-Missouri City)
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State Rep. Ron Reynolds (D-Missouri City)

As the shooting of Walter Scott dominated national headlines this week, Texas lawmakers discussed legislation aimed at making police officers think twice before using excessive force. In a House committee hearing on Thursday, state Rep. Ron Reynolds (D-Missouri City) laid out a bill that would require law enforcement officers across the state to wear body cameras when engaging with the public.

“We’ve often seen from recent incidents why we need body cameras. You can look no further than the most recent incident in South Carolina,” Reynolds said. “It is my firm belief that if that officer was equipped with a body camera that tragic incident would not have taken place.”

Many witnesses testifying at the hearing agreed. John Kreager, speaking on behalf of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said that body cameras “could be a win for officers and a win for the community,” by both preventing incidents of excessive use of force and ameliorating strained relationships between law enforcement and communities.

“When rational people know they’re being watched, they simply behave better,” Kreager said.

Recent studies have backed up those assertions. A study by the U.K.’s University of Cambridge found that body cameras reduced the use of force by 50 percent, and that complaints against the police fell by 90 percent.

Some cities in Texas already have body camera pilot programs, including Houston, Dallas and San Antonio.

Ron Hickman, the constable for Harris County Precinct 4, said he knows that body cameras are inevitable and that his agency was already looking into implementing them. But he testified against the bill, saying it was “premature” to pass such legislation without knowing how such a program might be implemented.  His primary concern was cost.

“Do I buy a camera because you said I had to, or or do I buy a bulletproof vest because I need to?” Hickman said.

The Houston Police Department recently asked the state for $7.6 million to pay for 90 body cameras. The cameras, Hickman said, aren’t the primary problem, as they run about $1,000 each. But he said there’s an unknown cost of storing “mountains of data” and hiring skilled individuals who can manage and edit the footage.

Reynold’s bill (HB 474) would require law enforcement agencies to store the footage for at least 180 days. The footage would also be available to the public via open records requests, and personal information would have to be redacted. But the bill includes a provision that allows law enforcement agencies to apply for a waiver, in the case of limited funds. Reynolds said he requested $50 million in the House budget for body cameras—though the provision sits in Article XI, the so-called wish list.

If the state does provide funding for body cameras, those funds might be boosted by assistance from the federal government. In December, in response to the shooting of Michael Brown, President Barack Obama asked Congress to approve $263 million in funds for police body cameras and training. The funds would match state funding for cameras by 50 percent.

Reynolds thinks that in the long run, body cameras will save money by reducing the number of lawsuits over excessive force complaints.

Some committee members sided with Hickman, including state Rep. Allen Fletcher (R-Cypress), the chair of the committee. Fletcher, who was an officer with the Houston Police Department for 21 years, said that the Legislature needs to be very careful about what they tell law enforcement to do, and should give police agencies time to work on developing their own implementation methods for body camera programs. Beyond the cost argument, those opposed to the bill are simply wary of enacting legislation before all the details are worked out.

That frustrated state Rep. Marisa Marquez (D-El Paso), who gave an impassioned speech in favor of the cameras. She said it was important to remember that the cameras would just be a tool and wouldn’t eliminate other evidence or a trial by jury.

“I appreciate the comments of law enforcement that come up here and say that there are challenges, but well, that’s life.” Marquez said. “We just got to move forward and try to perfect it as well as we can and just remember that it’s one piece of a process.”

Vincent Harding, secretary of the Travis County Democratic Party, told the committee that it was their job to find solutions to complicated problems, and that law enforcement officers who balk at the idea of being filmed all the time should take a note from Scripture: “To whom much is given, much is required.”

“The decision to go into law enforcement was a voluntary decision that comes with a set of responsibilities,” Harding said. “By contrast, being born a minority in America is not a voluntary decision.”

Reynolds’ bill was left pending and he said that he was still working on a final version that he expects will be finished in the next two weeks. But in the end, he says he doesn’t care whether it’s his bill that gets passed—just that some action on the issue is taken this session. On Tuesday, state Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) presented another body camera bill to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. His bill will be taken up again by the committee next week.

 

Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick
Kelsey Jukam
Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick at the State of the State Address.

There are only 52 days until the 84th legislative session, in all its 140-day glory, bids us farewell. That’s less time than it sounds. In a little over a month, the final set of bill deadlines will begin to set in, choking any bills that haven’t already gathered momentum.

So how have the two chambers of the Legislature been performing so far? According to an analysis of the Lege through the 83rd day of session conducted by the Professional Advocacy Association of Texas, an association of lobbyists, the Senate has been unusually unproductive these last few months.

PAAT tallied up the bills that have made it past certain benchmarks in the legislative process—voted out of committee, for example—and compared the results to the same point in the last legislative session. It turns out that the House is working at about the same pace as it always has. In 2013, 364 House bills had been voted out of their committees by the 83rd day. This year, 362 had.

But Dan Patrick’s Senate, meanwhile, is moving as slow as molasses. In 2013, the upper chamber had moved 432 bills from committees to the floor. This year, only 229 bills have made the jump, a 47 percent decrease.

The House only passed eight bills by the 83rd day this session, as opposed to 10 in 2013. But the Senate had passed 276 by that point last session—whereas only 98 passed this year, a whopping 64 percent decrease.

Both chambers have plenty of time to advance their agendas over the next month, so why is this significant? It quantifies something notable about the Senate, which is that its performance hasn’t lived up to the expectations Patrick set for it. He barreled into office with a tremendous amount of energy. He’d bring next-generation super-duper conservatism to the masses in short order. During his inauguration, he patted his predecessors on the back for the many fine things they’d done “over the last 12 years since taking the majority. But it’s time to take it to the next level.” He told reporters and the public that the slow pace set by David Dewhurst was a thing of the past.

He trumpeted his rapid appointment of committee chairs as evidence he was getting the ball rolling quickly. Here’s what the Texas Tribune’s Ross Ramsey wrote about Patrick’s attempt to quicken the chamber’s pace at the time:

Naming committees quickly would give the Senate a head start on the House, perhaps setting up a flow of Senate bills to the lower chamber before the House is ready to send anything back.

It’s inside baseball, but it’s important: Legislators actually care whether a law resulted from a Senate bill or a House bill, even if hardly anyone else notices. More importantly, in the back-and-forth interplay of the two legislative chambers, an early start on the Senate side could pressure the House to get going on the upper chamber’s legislation — a subtle way of positioning the Senate’s agenda in front of the House’s own plans.

This was doubtless what Patrick intended, but roughly the opposite has happened. Patrick’s demolition of the two-thirds rule means that Democrats have no incentive to play along, so they’ve been dragging their feet and using delaying tactics. The Senate Republican caucus has been unsteady, with divisions between fire-starting freshmen and the few remaining senior statesmen. The House, by and large, has set the agenda. Patrick is making David Dewhurst look like Bob Bullock.

One easy rejoinder to this would be that the number of bills passed doesn’t reflect how much Patrick has actually advanced his agenda, but he doesn’t have much to show on that front either. The items he set out during his election campaign as his top priorities—he used to say eliminating in-state college tuition for undocumented Texans would be the first thing he’d do, for example—have mostly fallen by the wayside. (Yes, the bid to repeal in-state tuition got a hearing, but faced with strong opposition and little time left in the session, it’s almost certainly dead.)

Speaker Joe Straus’ House is a particularly unreceptive place for the policies Patrick most favors, and there’s not much he can do about it. To take another example: He’s put a great deal of emphasis on school choice in his years of public service, but vouchers are probably dead this session, too, and furthermore he seems to know it.

Instead, Patrick has spent a lot of energy on an incomprehensible tax cut plan, which faces an uncertain future and derision from both Democrats and Republicans. He’s been forced to push for bills, like open and campus carry, that he doesn’t seem to care much about personally.

There’s also the budget, the most important product of any legislative session. Last session, the Senate budget, skillfully shepherded by former state Sen. Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands), passed out of the Senate Finance Committee by March 13 and was passed by the full Senate on March 20. This session’s Senate budget is… Well, where is it?

State Sen. Jane Nelson, the finance chair, last aired the Senate’s budget proposal (Senate Bill 2) on March 26. On Wednesday, she sent a budget proposal to the Senate floor by altering the House budget proposal (House Bill 1), which arrived in her committee after the lower chamber passed it last week. Next week, probably on Tuesday, April 14, the full Senate will consider the budget for the first time, almost a month behind last session’s pace.

All this is hardly fatal, and the Senate’s say in the budget process isn’t really affected by whether the House or the Senate’s budget bill is used. But it’s a sign that Patrick is letting happen exactly the thing he swore he’d prevent—he said he never understood why the Legislature let the calendar get so heavy on the back end. Now, presumably, he does.

There’s another possible consequence of the slow pace: the dreaded special session. The 83rd Legislature had three special sessions, at a time when everything was working pretty smoothly. Granted, the special sessions were in part caused by Gov. Perry’s desire to fight about social issues; Gov. Abbott doesn’t seem similarly inclined. It’s entirely possible Patrick and Straus tie up their differences with a neat bow by June 1. But what might the Legislature not get done by sine die?

State Rep. Matt Shaheen
City of Plano
State Rep. Matt Shaheen (R-Plano) speaks against the city's Equal Rights Ordinance before it passed on Dec. 8.

A spectre is haunting the Capitol—the spectre of taxpayer-funded lobbyists.

They sound awful, don’t they? Lobbyists are unpopular, often justifiably so, and taxes are even more unpopular. Lobbyists who represent governmental entities have increasingly become pariahs at the Capitol. Vilified in the last election cycle, some lawmakers, like state Sen. Konni Burton (R-Ft. Worth), have refused to let them in their office, no matter who they represent—even though she was happy to take their campaign contributions during her race.

Now, that derision may turn into law. On Thursday, the House Committee on General Investigating and Ethics heard two bills from state Rep. Matt Shaheen (R-Plano) that would prohibit lobbyists from being hired by certain entities with public funding. House Bill 1257 would prevent any political unit that collects taxes, like cities and counties, from hiring lobbyists. House Bill 3219 would do the same for school districts—and Shaheen, a freshman, can count Gov. Greg Abbott among the backers of the bill.

How could anyone object to that?

“The best lobbying is between legislators and elected officials,” Shaheen told the committee. Lobbyists were superfluous in Austin, he said, and served no real use. Peggy Venable, the policy director for Americans For Prosperity, agreed. She told the committee that money spent on lobbyists was a shameful waste. Full of concern for the sanctity of public education, she felt that school districts should be spending that money on kids. (Venable’s group has been one of the most vociferous proponents of state money for private schools.)

But Venable was a lone voice in support of the bills. Most witnesses, including representatives of school districts and cities, spoke against them. Why?

Hiring lobbyists, they said, was a time-saving measure that allowed entities far from Austin to keep meticulous track of bills that affect them, and have a say at the table when the rubber meets the road. The alternative is simply not realistic. It makes no sense, they said, to force volunteer school board trustees and city councilmen, who are not well paid, if it all, to trek to Austin and learn the ins and outs of the session.

The crusade against taxpayer-funded lobbyists is a great source of red meat for the Republican primary, but it ignores some fundamental things about how the Legislature works. For one, it’s extremely difficult to understand how the Legislature works, when it’s working at all. Capitol insiders speak their own language, and it takes a while to learn. Much happens behind the scenes, and the session moves so fast that it’s difficult for even well-informed observers to keep track of things. Legislators routinely work in 16-hour blocks and meet at unpredictable hours.

If you’re a county commissioner up in Amarillo, or a trustee of a school district in Houston, you can call up your legislators, sure. But you have better things to do than haul yourself to Austin and learn the intricacies of the legislative process so you can have a say on the hundreds of bills that could mean hard or flush times for the people you represent.

And if you’re representing a city that has a misfortune to be at odds with a powerful lobbying interest, like AT&T or the oil & gas industry, you can bet that they’ll have their own army of lobbyists in Austin’s back-rooms trying to cut you down. Without your own to match them, you’re at significant disadvantage.

Ideally, of course, legislators themselves would be aggressive advocates for their own constituents. But the quality of legislators varies widely. If you’re a local official, your state representative may be ideologically opposed to public education. Or he or she may want to help, but be powerless. Or they might be totally disconnected from their local governments—last year, former New Braunfels Mayor Gale Pospisil told me she’d never met the state senator who represents New Braunfels, Donna Campbell, even though Campbell lived in the city.

After local officials pleaded their case, the committee seemed skeptical of Shaheen’s bill. State Rep. Lyle Larson, once a San Antonio city councilman, noted that he only got paid $20 per city council meeting. He didn’t think his former colleagues could justify traveling to Austin much on that salary. Larson and state Rep. Sarah Davis (R-Houston) posed a question to Shaheen: The state of Texas had its own taxpayer-funded “government relations” team in Washington, D.C. Should that be undone?

“To be transparent, I didn’t know we had that until I was sitting here today,” said Shaheen. His quickly-generated rejoinder was that the Texas congressional delegation should advocate for Texas, not taxpayer-funded lobbyists. “Our congressmen are full-time congressmen,” said Shaheen. To which Larson replied: “Well, sort of.”

Davis continued the line of questioning. If the Lubbock City Council should be responsible for advocating for bills in Austin, shouldn’t Austin legislators live by the same principle? “I would assume that you would believe that we as state representatives should be responsible for going to Washington, D.C. to talk to congressmen,” said Davis. “If so, how many trips do you have lined up?”

Shaheen laughed. His bills were left pending in committee.

Marsha Farney FB
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State Rep. Marsha Farney (R-Georgetown)

The House State Affairs Committee considered a bill late Wednesday night that would ban coverage for abortion in health plans offered through the Affordable Care Act’s health insurance exchange.

State Rep. Marsha Farney (R-Georgetown) said her bill “will ensure that insurance plans offered in Texas under the health benefit exchange would not cover elective abortions.”

Opponents, however, argued that Farney’s House Bill 3130 would create yet another hurdle for women.

HB 3130 “is effectively a ban on abortion for anyone purchasing insurance through the Affordable Care Act exchange,” said Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas. “If you ban insurance coverage for abortion from the exchange, a pregnant person may not be able to access a licensed, quality health provider in a timely manner.”

The Affordable Care Act allows states to enact policies that specifically ban abortion coverage in health plans offered through the health insurance exchange. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a national research organization that tracks abortion and reproductive health policies, 25 states already prohibit abortion coverage in their exchanges. Some policies, including the Texas legislation considered by the House committee, include an exemption for life-endangering situations and when a “serious risk of substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function.”

State Rep. Jessica Farrar (D-Houston) took issue with the bill’s lack of exceptions for cases of rape, incest, fetal anomalies and ectopic pregnancies. Under Farney’s plan, if a woman purchasing insurance in the exchange wants abortion coverage, she would be required to buy a supplemental plan, a provision that also concerned Farrar.

“I don’t see the purpose of the bill, and I understand that you have a philosophical purpose, but I’m just being pragmatic,” Farrar told Farney during many exchanges between the two during the hearing. “No one anticipates having to have an abortion. … Unsuspecting women are not going to know to get that extra policy.”

Supporters of the bill, including Texas Alliance for Life, Texans for Life Coalition and the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, argued that allowing insurers to include abortion coverage in the exchange’s health plans is equivalent to taxpayer-subsidized abortions.

“It forces taxpayers to contribute to ending unborn life,” said Jennifer Allmon with the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops. “This bill protects the conscience of individuals who do not wish to contribute to premiums that cover abortion.”

Farrar pointed out multiples times during the discussion that the federal health law already addresses this concern. According to health care research group Kaiser Family Foundation, the Affordable Care Act requires insurance companies that offer abortion coverage to “segregate funds, assuring that no federal funds are used for abortion coverage.” Allmon said clarity is needed on the separation of funds.

Abortion rights organizations nationwide argue that bans on insurance coverage for abortion disproportionately affect poor women, who are five times more likely to have an unintended pregnancy. Poor women on Medicaid must pay out-of-pocket for their abortions. In 1976, Congress passed the Hyde Amendment, which bars the public health insurance program from covering abortion. The Guttmacher Institute estimates that one in four women on Medicaid who want an abortion can’t get one.

Amanda Jean Stevenson, researcher with the University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Policy Evaluation Project, told the committee that a study her group conducted in 2013 found that 40 percent of women seeking abortions in Texas live at or below the federal poverty line, and women purchasing insurance in the health insurance exchange have lower median income than the rest of the population. Stevenson warned that Farney’s ban may force women to wait to have their abortions until later in their  pregnancies, or keep them from getting the procedure at all.

Discussion of Farney’s bill Wednesday night also illuminated a divide between Texas Right to Life and Texas Alliance for Life, two major statewide pro-life groups. Texas Alliance for Life backs Farney’s legislation. John Seago with Texas Right to Life, however, told the committee that he agrees with the goal of the bill, but suggested it doesn’t go far enough.

“This bill only provides protections for those who do end up going to (the Affordable Care Act exchange)” for insurance plans, Seago said. “Our position is we need to cover the rest of the market.”

Texas Right to Life is supporting another bill by state Rep. John Smithee (R-Amarillo), but it hasn’t been scheduled for a hearing.

The committee left Farney’s proposal pending, though she told committee members to expect another version of the bill soon. She also said she’d be willing to consider expanding the ban to include all private insurance plans offered in Texas, as well as language that includes exceptions for rape, incest and ectopic pregnancies.

Ken Paxton, after being sworn in, stands among Texas GOP VIP's: From left to right, Governor-elect Greg Abbott, Senator Ted Cruz, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Justice Don Willett, and Governor Rick Perry.
Christopher Hooks
Ken Paxton, after being sworn in, stands among Texas GOP VIPs: From left to right, Gov.-elect Greg Abbott, Sen. Ted Cruz, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Justice Don Willett, and Gov. Rick Perry.

On Wednesday night, news broke that a Collin County grand jury is exploring anew Attorney General Ken Paxton’s potential legal improprieties—another milestone in his declining fortunes. For the last few months, Paxton had seemed to have gotten away with it.

First, he had managed the spectacular task of getting elected to the top law enforcement job just months after admitting to violating securities law by shunting his legal clients into shady financial deals, then getting a kickback, without telling them about it. That was the easy part. (He’s a Republican; it’s Texas.)

But if someone were to simply indict him for the crime that he had apparently admitted to committing, he would likely be charged with a felony. No sweat, right? Paxton is not even a ham sandwich—he’s the lowest of low-hanging fruit. A prosecutor would just have to reach out and pluck him. But in late January, Paxton got an even bigger break. The Travis County District Attorney’s Public Integrity Unit—the ethics watchdog that Republicans are convinced is out to get them at all costs—politely declined the case.

The PIU prosecutor said that only the district attorneys in Collin and Dallas counties, where Paxton was active at the time he allegedly violated the law, had the jurisdiction to charge him. Both Republicans, the DAs seem exceptionally unlikely to go after Paxton. Dallas DA Susan Hawk’s office has been barely functional amid a series of weird personal dramas, and Collin DA Greg Willis is a long-time best friend of Paxton’s—they’re former business partners, and supported each other’s election bids. If you go to Willis’ website, Paxton is still listed as heading up the host committee to one of Willis’ last big fundraisers.

So like the ill-fated villain of a noir, Paxton had arrived at the moment of false confidence that bad guys always reach right before the hammer comes down. After an election season in which his spokespeople were literally manhandling reporters to keep them from asking questions—any questions at all—of the big man, Paxton had something of a coming-out party. He was feted by GOP royalty, without reservations, at his inauguration. In February, he appeared with Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and U.S. Senator Ted Cruz at a high-profile Obama bashfest. He even wrote a column for Bill Buckley’s old rag.

If everyone on the GOP team just kept quiet, Paxton would be fine, and in four to eight years he’d move on to higher office. And it seemed initially like that’s how it would play out. When Craig McDonald, the head of the left-leaning accountability group Texans for Public Justice, tried to follow up with Willis’ office on the information on Paxton sent by the PIU, he says he “got the clear sense from Willis’ spokesman that our stuff was going straight into the paper shredder.” (Willis’ office didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

Which is why three events in the last week have come as such a surprise. The first came last Thursday, when the editorial board of the Dallas Morning News called for Willis to seek the appointment of a special prosecutor to look into Paxton’s history. “The state’s top law enforcer, Attorney General Ken Paxton, also happens to be an admitted law breaker,” the editorial began. It continued:

These are not nitpicky issues. State securities law imposes registration requirements to protect the public from victimization by investment frauds and scams.

The fact that Paxton violated the law repeatedly over several years suggests a troubling pattern unbecoming of the esteemed office he now holds. That’s why an independent prosecutor needs to assume control of this case.

Then, on Friday, state Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) told the Houston Chronicle that he thought the case warranted more attention:

“How is going back to your home county and having a friend and business associate handling your prosecution better?” Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, said. “I think it’s a clear case for a special prosecutor.”

Republicans are generally very good at tribal loyalty, but many serious GOPers can’t be happy with the fact that one of their most important statewide elected officials is so ethically challenged. (Though amid the ensuing firestorm, Seliger told one Lubbock radio station he’d been talking in hypotheticals.)

Seliger was also talking about Senate Bill 10, an attempt by state Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) to gut the PIU by routing ethics investigations through the Texas Rangers—run by an appointee of the governor—and ultimately to the hometown prosecutors of elected officials. It would be a grotesque way to do business, because many legislators have friendly relationships with their county DAs, just like Paxton does. SB 10 would take the most bizarre and screwed-up part of the Paxton saga so far and replicate it all over the state.

Seliger and state Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler) held up the bill over a proposal that the AG’s office play a role in ethics investigations—letting Paxton guard the henhouse. But once that was stripped, the two dropped their objections. On Wednesday, SB 10 passed the Senate along party lines, 21 to 10.

During the debate, state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) outlined a hypothetical scenario that mirrored the case of Paxton and Willis. Would Huffman, who used to work in the office of the Harris County DA, think it appropriate for the Willis-like figure to step aside and urge the appointment of a special prosecutor? Huffman answered that if she were the DA, “I would recuse myself.” But her bill would force more and more local DAs into that position, where not all might have Huffman’s sense of ethical responsibility.

But just a few hours after the Senate debate concluded, the Houston Chronicle broke word that Willis might not have to ask for a special prosecutor after all. A Collin County grand jury had gone rogue, in part, perhaps, because of the public attention conjured by the Dallas Morning News and others. The grand jury appeared to be circumventing Willis. They requested the information forwarded to his office by the PIU—the information Willis seemed intent to ignore.

“Collin County appears to be the venue where this evidence needs to be heard,” says the letter from the grand jury vice foreman. “Therefore, we are requesting the documents be sent to us as soon as possible.”

Once the grand jury hears the evidence in Paxton’s case, an indictment seems more likely than not.

“This case is absurd because Paxton has already admitted to a crime with Texas regulators,” says McDonald. His admission of guilt, passed off by his consultants during the election as the end of the matter, “in no way adjudicates his potential felony criminal behavior.” As a reminder of the surreal nature of the fact that he may not be prosecuted for a crime which he has apparently admitted to committing, McDonald says, he keeps Paxton’s “signed confession” on his desk.

Editor’s note: This story has been edited to remove a questionable historical reference in the original version. 

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