Floor Pass

The current UT System Regents.

Sen. Kel Seliger’s bill that could cut through the University of Texas System regents’ current power struggle with the Legislature was heard by the House Higher Education Committee early Wednesday morning.

Seliger, and nine other senators, filed Senate Bill 15 in response to allegations that the governor-appointed University of Texas Regents are trying to oust UT-Austin President Bill Powers. Seliger has said his bill, which would limit the authority of the UT Regents and other state higher education governing boards, is all about transparency.

The bill passed through the Senate earlier this month with very little discussion and overwhelming bipartisan support, possibly spurred by the Legislature’s own trouble dealing with the UT Regents. Some lawmakers have said the Regents are on a “witch hunt” to get rid of President Powers, despite UT Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa lauding Power’s accomplishments.

The Regents have also tried to withhold requested documents from legislators under Texas open records laws, inciting a more heated controversy over the power of the UT regents.

Currently the education code allows governing boards to bypass chancellors on decisions, something Seliger has said endangers the future of the higher education systems in Texas.

“The only reason they’re as good as they are is because the leadership and governance that those systems have had,” said Seliger in a YouTube video, posted after he filed the bill. He said the bill ensures, “as these systems grow and continue to flourish all over the state of Texas, that they are as well led in the future as they have been in the past.”

Seliger has also called on Gov. Perry to relieve the tension between his Regents and the Legislature. “He ought to do what’s best for the state of Texas. Turmoil in an institution for no good reason is something we certainly ought to be wary of. It’s not productive,” Seliger told the Texas Tribune earlier this month.

Seliger’s bill takes a more procedural slant and would add the following provisions to the education code:

  • Allow boards of regents to appoint the system chancellor and a university president.
  • The chancellor, with board advice, will be allowed to evaluate university presidents.
  • Authorizes a chancellor to recommend termination of employment of a UT president, but the board of regents will not be allowed to fire a president unless the system chancellor recommend it.
  • Prohibits regents appointed to the board when the Legislature is not in session from voting, until they have been to the Committee on Nominations, or upon 45 days without a committee meeting.
  • Would prevent any appointed board members from voting if they have yet to complete an ethics training course.

The current Texas Education Code fails to provide appropriate guidance to higher education governing boards, said House Higher Education Committee Chair Dan Branch in laying out the bill Wednesday’s hearing.

“This is meant to clarify, there’s going to be a role for the chancellor, there going to be a role for the regents, and a role for individual university institutional leadership, and presidents are going to be held accountable largely by the chancellor, and chancellors are going to be held accountable by the regents,” Branch said. “So, If you don’t like that sort of approach, then you probably won’t like SB 15.”

The bill was left pending in committee, with a possible vote either Thursday or Friday of this week.

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http://mikevillarreal.com/Learn/MeetMike/tabid/64/Default.aspx
Rep. Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio)

Discrimination in the workplace isn’t just wrong—it’s economically unsound, stressed Reps. Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio) and Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) in the House Economic and Small Business Development Committee on Wednesday morning. The two representatives authored duplicate bills, HB  238 and HB 1146 to prohibit workplace discrimination against LGBTQ employees.

(Asked why there are two identical bills, Villarreal responded, “I’m not sure why Eric [Johnson] filed his own bill but I think it’s great. I would love if 150 members filed the same bill. That would be progress.”)

While there are currently several anti-discriminatory employment statutes in place in major Texas cities, including Austin, Ft. Worth, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and El Paso, there is no uniform statewide code.

“If somebody plays by the rules, shows up, gets the job done, they should be treated just like anybody else, based on their productivity,” said Villarreal as he introduced his bill. “This [bill] would ensure that Texas can continue to attract and maintain the highest caliber workforce.”

Johnson added to Villarreal’s introduction, arguing for the economic advantage of prohibiting discrimination in the workplace and how the bill could help bring in more out-of-state corporations.

“The existance of a law like this would send the message that the Texas you may have in your mind… that we don’t care about everyone and we’re not concerned about the rights of everyone, is not true. We’re interested in protecting the rights of everyone,” he said. “This isn’t just a moral issue, but there’s also a good business reason for doing something like this.”

Johnson and Villarreal pointed out that an estimated 430,000 LGBTQ workers exist in Texas and that 21 other states plus the District of Columbia have also already enacted similar anti-discrimination policies.

Villarreal noted that, according to Equity Forum, 96.6 percent of the 2012 Fortune 500 companies have LGBTQ anti-discrimination policies in place; and the higher a company ranks on list, the more likely it is to provide these protections (Dell, which is based in Texas, is one such company).

There was one moment of emotional appeal. Retired Marine Staff Sgt. Eric Alva, of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” fame, testified on behalf of the bill.

“There are no laws to protect individuals such as myself,” said Alva. “It should not matter that as diverse as I am—being gay, disabled, Latino and a veteran—I am a person of this great state. Anyone, regardless of race, color, culture, age, religion, ethnicity, sex, disability, orientation, gender identity or expression—each person deserves the same equal opportunity as each of you representing this great state, no matter who we are.”

Alva was the first American wounded in Operation Iraqi Freedom; his leg was amputated after he stepped on a landmine. He was awarded the first Purple Heart of the war and is a native of San Antonio.

“I took an oath one day at 19 years old in 1989, that I would defend this country no matter what so that everyone would have the same rights no matter who they are,” said Alva. “Last week, we saw the vicious act of hatred continue in this country and once again precious life was taken from us and hundreds of innocent lives were injured. I bring this up because I know firsthand what it is to survive an explosion.”

Alva continued. “For me, life is a gift. I almost lost mine. And I guess the reason I bring up last week’s news is because we only get this one life, and every person across this state that I call home deserves to be treated an equal and given a chance for fair employment.”

Although Villarreal is uncertain whether the bill will even get a vote in committee, he says the Legislature has made some progress on the issue.

“There was once a time when I couldn’t get a hearing on my bill,” Villarreal said. So we’ve come a long way. And that’s a reflection of how our state and our nation have come a long way.”

State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio
State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio)

In a county juvenile lockup, you can be shut alone in a room for all sorts of things. Fighting, sure, or trying to escape. But in some counties, “horseplay” and “disrespectful attitude” also count as “major rules violations” that could land you in seclusion with no idea when you’ll get out.

Youth advocates say some counties are putting kids in seclusion too readily, for far too long. Juvenile justice officials say they have those rules for a reason, and when a child is dangerous and acting out, they simply have to isolate them.

It’s a familiar disagreement in juvenile justice, but lawmakers got to hear it again Tuesday night as they considered placing a four-hour limit on counties’ use of seclusion.

Under a bill from Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio), only assault, escaping or trying to escape would carry a penalty of seclusion for more than four hours. Each county facility in the state would also have to report how often it placed juveniles in solitary, and why.

As part of the movement away from big, state-run juvenile facilities, more kids are held and treated by county juvenile probation offices. It’s a good idea for many reasons, but it also means rules can vary from one county to the next. It’s tough to get statewide data from such a decentralized system, and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition says the state’s oversight of the county system is still too weak.

In advance of the bill’s hearing, the Associated Press took a longer look at the issue, and some of the research on why solitary confinement is so harmful for kids.

“This bill reflects a national trend in rethinking the use of solitary confinement,” said Catherine McCullough from the ACLU of Texas Tuesday night—but the county juvenile officials who turned up uniformly opposed the bill.

Some argued that four hours in seclusion was no great deterrent at all—at 9 p.m., after waiting all afternoon to testify, one woman joked that even “eight hours goes by pretty fast”—and only long stints in seclusion would make an impression on kids.

Others said disciplinary seclusion was hardly as bad as advocates suggest. “When kids are in their room … they have to have all their rights given to them,” said Doug Vance, the chief juvenile probation officer for Brazos County. “They’re not locked away in some dungy cell for hours and hours on end.”

They made a strong distinction between their disciplinary seclusion and the sort of solitary confinement youth might get in the adult system.

The county officials said they were fine with reporting their use of seclusion, but urged senators to commission a study on improving their use of seclusion—if there’s any problem at all.

Mark Williams, Tom Green County’s chief probation officer, said Van de Putte’s bill ignores the reality of running a youth lockup, and gives too much credence to the opinions of outsiders.

“The people that don’t work with the kids are the ones that really like this bill,” he said, “and the ones that work with the kids are the ones that do not.”

Texas State Capitol in Austin, Tex.
Patrick Michels

The Lead:

Two years after leaving the state’s rainy day fund untouched, despite a $27 billion deficit, the Senate voted yesterday to finally use the fund to restore money to public education, after cutting more than $5 billion last session. Better late than never. Senators passed a constitutional amendment that would allow money from the Economic Stabilization Fund—as it’s officially called—to also fund road and water infrastructure projects.

After spending a majority of the day negotiating behind closed doors, senators reached a deal and voted to take out $5.7 billion from the rainy day fund. The compromise would put $800 million toward schools, $2 billion toward water projects and $2.9 billion toward roads.

Education advocates have been asking legislators to tap the rainy day fund to augment Texas school budgets since the 2011 budget cut discussion began, to no avail.

The Texas Tribune reports that the Senate plans to allocate an extra $1.4 billion for public schools. Put together with the money from the rainy day fund, and the money in the Senate budget plan, and a total of $3.7 billion would get restored to public education. That’s the Senate version anyway.

The Observer’s Forrest Wilder reports that even with this added spending, the rainy day fund would have a balance of around $6 billion in 2015.

Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. The Senate passed Sen. Kel Seliger’s bill that would allow Waste Control Specialists to accept “hotter” radioactive waste at its dump site in West Texas, as the Observer’s Forrest Wilder writes.

2. House members pulled a surprise by first voting down, and then subsequently reviving the sunset bill for the Texas Lottery Commission, as the Houston Chronicle reports. Sunset bills allow agencies to continue operating. The Lottery supplies about $2 billion for public education.

3. The Dallas Morning News reports that 12 legislators fired off letters to three different gun manufacturers in Connecticut, inviting them to move to Texas and bring more jobs with them.

Line of the Day:

“Cutting people off, not allowing them to complete their three minutes of testimony, asserting that they hadn’t read the legislation and weren’t prepared to testify appropriately does discourage opposition, whether Sen. Patrick means it to or not. It kind of undermines the whole idea of a participatory government process.” —Kathy Miller, of the Texas Freedom Network, as quoted by the Observer’s Olivia Messer in a feature on Sen. Patrick’s polarizing tenure as chair of the Senate Education Committee.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. The budget conference committee gets started today. Five state reps and five senators will hold their first meeting to begin final negotiations on state spending for 2014-2015.

2. Rep. Tom Craddick’s texting ban, HB 63, is the only bill up in Senate Transportation today. The bill passed last week after a show on the House floor, so we’re expecting some interesting feedback from the community.

3. House State Affairs will hear yet another bill aimed at limiting how and when abortions may be performed in Texas. This one is Rep. Matt Krause’s HB 3302.

4. Sen. Kel Seliger’s SB 15 has passed through the Senate and will be heard by the House Higher Education Committee today. The bill would limit the authority of any higher education governing boards, including Gov. Rick Perry’s allies on the University of Texas Board of Regents.

Jimmie Don Aycock
State Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen)

After its triumphant passage through the Senate, a bill allowing more charter schools in Texas, and making it easier to close low-performing charters, went before a committee of House members Tuesday night.

Other charter school expansion plans from the Senate have died in the House in recent sessions, so charter operators turned out in force to back Senate Bill 2.

The big charter school bill isn’t so big anymore after its author, Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston), made major compromises to get the bill passed on the Senate floor. Patrick had hoped to do away with the cap on charter schools, but settled on raising the cap to 305 by 2019. Gone are provisions to give charters money for school buildings, and requiring school districts to lease or sell vacant buildings to charters.

Lawmakers didn’t let on too much of their feelings about the bill—but Killeen Republican Jimmy Don Aycock, chair of the House Public Education Committee, said he didn’t consider the bill watered-down, because it allows the state’s charter network to grow. Charter school officials seemed to agree.

The bill still gives charter schools priority access to unused public school facilities, which Kathleen Zimmerman, executive director of NYOS Charter School, said is the bill’s most important improvement. Zimmerman said she has to give up her office for tutoring sessions because unlike public schools, charters don’t get facilities funding.

Under the Senate version, the education commissioner would revoke charters of schools that performed poorly in three out of five years.

Zimmerman said she didn’t focus on those higher standards because she wanted to highlight the positives. But, she said, “as a charter operator, I don’t want poor performing charters either.”

Rep. Alma Allen (D-Houston) said she’s concerned that charters may have a hard time getting loans because some banks want them to plan to be open for more than five years.

Charles Pulliam, chief development officer of Life School charter in Dallas, said that prospect would undermine the flexibility charters need to test out innovative education strategies.

“It scares me a little,” Pulliam said. “To have one blanket way of determining if they are successful is a mistake.”

The committee left the bill pending.

Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands)
Patrick Michels
Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands)

In the end, the Senate proposal to spend $5.7 billion out of the state’s Rainy Day Fund on roads ($2.9 billion), water infrastructure ($2 billion) and schools ($800 million) was unanimous: 31-0.

Sen. Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands), who chairs the powerful Senate Finance Committee, told lawmakers he had “woken up at 2:30 this morning not knowing how we were going to get this out of the ditch.”

During the day, according to the Austin American-Statesman, “an angry dispute over the resolution developed behind closed doors” as Democrats and Republicans tried to reach a deal.

Although Democratic proposals to fully restore the $5.4 billion cuts made to public education were rebuffed on partisan lines, the additional money for schools in Senate Joint Resolution 1 amounts to a concession by Senate Republicans.

“We are within spitting distance” of matching spending levels before the Legislature made big cuts in 2011, noted Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth).

Later, Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D- San Antonio) said, “With today’s vote, we have signaled that we are no longer going to kick the can down the road on water, transportation, most importantly, the infrastructure of opportunity: education.”

Even with the additional spending, the state’s Rainy Day Fund—officially called the Economic Stabilization Fund—is expected to have a balance of around $6 billion when the Legislature meets again in 2015.

Still, for today at least, the Senate could brag on itself: It almost restored all the damage it did two years ago. Now, there’s a campaign slogan.

Senate Education Committee chair Dan Patrick (R-Houston)
Patrick Michels
Senate Education Committee chair Dan Patrick (R-Houston)

Six years ago, Houston Republican Dan Patrick debuted in the Texas Senate as an object of fascination, an aggressive harbinger of the Tea Party with a dedicated talk-radio following he addressed from a makeshift studio in the Capitol. Today, he’s a powerful Senate committee chairman on a crusade to help Texas’ poor and disabled children through the healing power of school choice.

Yet he remains as polarizing as ever, and his new responsibilities have only raised the stakes when his emotions get the best of him. Patrick’s brief reign over the Senate Education Committee has been a fascinating mix of empathy and cruelty, in which peaceful agreement rapidly degenerates into hostile shouting matches. Critics say his brand of leadership is taking a toll.

In some ways, not much has changed since his days as a hot-tempered outsider.

The same character who took credit for “discovering” Rush Limbaugh and titled his book, The Second Most Important Book You Will Ever Read: A Personal Challenge to Read the Bible, has distinguished himself at the Capitol as founder of the Senate’s Tea Party Caucus. Thanks to his efforts, the words “In God We Trust” have been permanently added to the Senate chamber, the Texas pledge includes the phrase “under God,” and the controversial sonogram bill passed last session.

Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, says he was on their radar from the start. “Back when Senator Patrick was first elected, the Texas Freedom Network placed him on our ‘far right watch list,’ calling him one of God’s lawgivers,” she said. “One of the problems we identified way back then was that he might have difficulty going from being a radio talk show host to a lawmaker.”

Texas Monthly grappled with the same question. “Patrick has long been known in Houston for a demeanor that can shift in a flash from angelic to aggrieved to outraged to breathtakingly narcissistic,” Mimi Swartz wrote in 2007. In the piece, Swartz recalls sitting beside Patrick on an interview panel of Houston mayoral candidates. Patrick asked to see the questions she’d prepared, so they wouldn’t overlap. And he stole them from her, one after the other, leaving her fumbling to come up with new questions at the last minute.

Swartz wrote she never knew whether he did it on purpose, but that the story fits his “is-he-for-real-or-is-he-a-phony” air, and his ambition. In the years since her story, Patrick has borrowed from each of the paths Swartz predicted for him:

“If, as a freshman senator with no previous experience in public office, he can really deliver on his promises…he has a chance to position himself to reach his presumed, if implausible, goal: to be elected governor of Texas in 2010. But if he becomes a victim of his own darker impulses—self-aggrandizement, self-immolation, a bristling hostility toward those who disagree with him—Patrick will be forever remembered as just another rookie who went to Austin with dreams of playing in the big leagues but couldn’t make the cut.”

Swartz recalls another story from before Patrick’s Senate career, when he made so much noise in a Capitol hearing, screaming at then-Representative (now Senator) Glenn Hegar, that a state trooper was called in. Five years after arriving in the Senate, Patrick was still making noise about elected officials. Last May, he emailed all the other Senate members to accuse Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas) of spreading lies about his marital status. The Quorum Report published the email chain, including Carona’s blistering denial. “I’ve never been shy about sharing my dislike and distrust of you. Put bluntly, I believe you are a snake oil salesman; a narcissist that would say anything to draw attention to himself,” he wrote.

That phony-aggressive combination that Swartz described—and Carona brought home—was evident in a recent appearance Patrick made on Piers Morgan’s CNN show. Patrick, who identifies as a lifetime National Rifle Association member, went on to discuss the NRA’s beefed-up relationship with NASCAR.

Morgan said he was “baffled” that the NRA was sponsoring a race, and that was all the prompting Patrick needed. “Well, first of all, tell me what’s bad about it,” he said, smiling. “I mean, Texans love guns. Texans love fast cars.” Then his voice bounced with frustration. “So, I don’t really understand the fuss. Tell me what your problem is. I don’t get it.” Before long he was red-faced, talking over Morgan and cutting him off mid-sentence.

Patrick keeps returning to Morgan’s show for encore explosions. His most recent turn was on April 9 after a mass stabbing in Houston, when Patrick—a Maryland native who majored in English before leaving his home state and changing his name—dismissed Morgan’s studio audience as “northeast liberals who don’t understand.”

The Patrick on CNN is really no different than the one wielding a gavel in front of a committee room. He reached the same peaks in March at a discussion of his Senate Bill 521, which would prevent any organization affiliated with Planned Parenthood from teaching or providing materials in sex education classes. He respectfully listened to those that supported the legislation, then he screamed, cut off and snapped at those testifying against it. When a witness asserted that abortions might save lives, Patrick boiled. “How about those 40 million that were killed? How about those 40 million plus that were killed?”

Kathy Miller got a share of Patrick’s bullying in that same hearing, when the two bickered back and forth for most of her time allotted for questioning.

“Senator Patrick is extraordinarily friendly toward those who come to support his position on bills, and troublingly inhospitable to those who disagree,” Miller said later. It’s the same old Dan Patrick, just with more power.

“It’s particularly troubling when citizens, ordinary citizens, come to express their opinions about pieces of legislation and he berates or belittles them,” she said.

“Cutting people off, not allowing them to complete their three minutes of testimony, asserting that they hadn’t read the legislation and weren’t prepared to testify appropriately does discourage opposition, whether Senator Patrick means it to or not,” Miller said. “It kind of undermines the whole idea of a participatory government process.”

Patrick has run many more hearings like that one. In one, he compared prohibiting private and parochial school students from playing in the University Interscholastic League to racial discrimination in the civil rights era. At a hearing on Senate Bill 2, his omnibus charter school bill, Patrick began by cautioning those who might oppose his measure, “When you’re testifying, you’re not testifying against a bill. You’re testifying against 100,000 families that have children on a waiting list,” he warned. Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) pressed him on the cost of his bill, and Patrick suggested he instead consider the “poor students in failing schools who are desperate for options.”

“Let’s not demagogue this,” West said.

At another hearing, Patrick repeatedly asked critics of a school-voucher proposal, which would provide money for special-needs kids to attend private schools, whether they had disabled children. When they said no, Patrick said they couldn’t offer a valid opinion on the issue if they didn’t have a special-needs child. (It should be noted that neither does Dan Patrick.)

I wanted to ask Patrick about these emotional hearings, so a few days ago on the Senate floor I handed in a press request. It changed hands a few times and landed on his desk. Then, I turned to watch him pick it up. He read it, briefly looking over my name and affiliation. And then he placed my request in the garbage.

I thought of Swartz’s encounter with him on that panel years ago. I sent another press request and finally flagged him down outside the railing on the Senate floor, and when we finally began talking, he was so friendly I wondered if I had imagined the slight.

Patrick agreed that his committee has been dramatic so far. “It has been emotional,” he told me. Patrick compared tearing up in some hearings to his pastor crying while delivering friends’ eulogies. “I thought about it afterwards and I thought about something my pastor told me. … He says that when it comes to being a pastor at a funeral or maybe a legislator, as long as your emotions do not impact your professionalism, it’s OK to be who you are.”

Despite the evidence to the contrary, Patrick believed he was accomplishing this. “I never let my emotions impact my professionalism,” he said.

I asked Patrick about what he thought of criticism that he might be selectively harsh with witnesses opposed to his bills. “I can only remember three witnesses that I was firm with,” he said, pointing to the man testifying against the sex ed bill as an example. Patrick contends that the Youtube video of him yelling was edited to cut out the witness’ provocative comment. “He said that abortions actually save lives. … He said, ‘Well, really, those 44 million abortions didn’t happen.’ That was offensive to me…and I would say it to him again if he was here.”

“If there have been three [witnesses] that I was short with, probably two were justified and probably one wasn’t,” he said.

Patrick’s ideology and his fervor have made him stand out, in radio and in politics. Not many others would call school choice the “civil rights issue of our time” in the year 2013… or ever, actually. But Miller said there’s a real drawback to the showboating.

“This is not really a partisan criticism,” she contends. “His counterpart in the House, Representative [Jimmie Don] Aycock, has not experienced the same kind of animosity in his hearings. Folks have been quick to point out that they feel heard in his hearings.”

“It’s about the willingness to actually listen to folks and allow them to feel as if they are genuinely a part of the decision-making process,” Miller continued. “Senator Patrick has shown an inclination to bring controversial pieces of legislation into his committee early in the game. We’ve heard CSCOPE hearings and sex ed bills and voucher bills and more controversial pieces of legislation, whereas the House committee has really taken up the major pieces of legislation.”

A prime example of this type of behavior—of his unwillingness to form alliances—can be seen in the committee’s discussion of his charter school bill, during which Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) and Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio) both said they felt left out of back-room discussions on the measure and couldn’t support the legislation since they didn’t have any information on it.

His handling of the charter school bill seemed, at that point, to be a good example of the lack of consensus behind his school choice efforts. But when his bill reached the Senate floor in early April—after a few hours’ delay for more negotiations—his usual opponents couldn’t praise him enough. He’d compromised on major sections of the bill, and worked the measure like a true politician.

West was cautious enough to secure a promise, on the record, that Patrick wouldn’t abandon their compromise later in the process. But he was enthusiastic about the way that the committee chairman was shaping up.

“Mr. President and members, I want to introduce the new Dan Patrick,” West said. “I know that the best is yet to come.”

A few days later, though, Patrick was back to his old self. Introducing “an unusual amendment, but one I feel strongly about,” he called for an unheard-of recall vote on a bill the Senate passed the previous day, because he hadn’t understood the bill. Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo), author of the measure, wondered: “Are you telling us you vote on bills all day long and don’t read the bills?”

“I’m not going to stand here and be insulted by you,” Patrick shot back. And while his recall vote passed, the point was moot—the bill had already been sent to the House, where members refused to give it back.

Despite the dramatics, Patrick feels that his chairmanship has been successful. “I believe we’re going to impact special need children and foster care students more than we have in a long, long time. … My focus this session was special needs students, foster students, [and] dropout students,” he told me. “We’ve all come together with a lot of consensus.”

The real story of Patrick’s chairmanship lies not in his angry outbursts, but in these “angelic” and “outraged” extremes. The hearing for his bill requiring cameras in special education classrooms was an emotional one in which he showed empathy, patience and grace with parents whose children had been abused.

Patrick told me his most emotional day this session included a hearing on allowing more charter schools geared toward dropouts. It was another day packed with emotional testimony, this time about the saving power of the right school for the right child. “Those students—one young man who said he might be in prison without the dropout recovery charter, the young lady who said she just wanted to make her mother proud … there’s no question that I did tear up and my voice did crack,” he said.

The emotion, he says, is fine if that’s who you are—the other extreme would be far worse. “If you become such a professional politician that you lose your heart, it’s time to not run for office anymore,” Patrick said.

Kel Seliger
State Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo)

Harold Simmons’ West Texas radioactive waste empire got a boost today after the Texas Senate passed legislation allowing Waste Control Specialists to accept “hotter” radioactive waste at its dump. The final vote was 24-7. Waste Control, a Simmons-controlled company, operates a growing radioactive waste dump green-lighted by the Legislature in 2003.

Since Waste Control received two licenses to dump waste from state and federal sources, it has moved to expand its operations. Amarillo Republican Sen. Kel Seliger’s Senate Bill 791 would order “Class A” radioactive waste—the least radioactive of so-called low-level radioactive waste—to be sent out of state, freeing up more space for hotter “Class B” and “Class C” waste. While the total volume and radioactivity currently allowed wouldn’t be changed, the bill would permit Waste Control to bring in waste that’s 250 percent hotter on an annual basis.

Cyrus Reed, with the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club said his group “continues to be opposed to passage of SB 791 by Seliger because it increases the radioactivity and volume of waste coming from out-of-state generators for a site that was intended for waste generated in Texas and Vermont.”

Seliger, however, agreed to drop some provisions of the bill that would have limited citizen input. One provision would have barred citizens of New Mexico—the town of Eunice, is the closest population center to the dump—from legally contesting changes to the dump. Sen. Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock) got Seliger to agree to drop that idea.

Also removed, courtesy of an amendment by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D-McAllen), was a section attacking a Sierra Club lawsuit challenging one of the company’s disposal permits. Last summer, a Travis County district judge agreed with the Sierra Club that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality had wrongly denied the club a chance to contest the permit. Sierra Club said it expects to win the suit and “the license will be found invalid.”

SB 791 now goes to the House, where a similar bill has been stalled in committee.

The Lead:

There aren’t many consumer victories at the Texas Capitol, but Monday’s debate on payday loan reform was certainly one of them. After hours of debate, the Texas Senate passed surprisingly tough payday loan reform, as the Observer‘s Forrest Wilder writes.

After a false start last Thursday—in which senators accused each other of being “shills” for industry—Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas) brought his SB 1247 back to the Senate floor, and it eventually passed 24 to 6. But not before the Senate added a series of amendments that transformed a watered-down compromise bill into a serious reform of the payday and auto title lending industry. The bill now prohibits lenders from offering more than one payday loan to a person at a time and caps interest rates at 36 percent APR, in addition to more restrictions that protect the loan recipient from drowning  debt. In other words, the bill would end the predatory payday loan practices in Texas, as we know them.

It may be a pyrrhic victory, however. The strong reforms may doom the bill in the House. The wealthy and powerful payday industry will do whatever it can to kill the bill.

Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. According to the Quorum Report, the House budget conferees (who will now negotiate the final budget with the Senate) were named yesterday. They are Jim Pitts (R-Waxahachie), Sylvester Turner (D-Houston), John Otto (R-Dayton), Myra Crownover (R-Denton) and John Zerwas (R-Richmond). After these negotiators were named, the House voted 77 to 68 to instruct the five not to vote for any provision that might even mention expanding Medicaid eligibility under Obamacare, reports the Dallas Morning News.

2. Sen. Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) brought forth a resolution on Monday that would give the go ahead to electric rebates. The measure passed the Senate despite significant opposition from Democrats, reports the Texas Tribune’s Morgan Smith. Under this measure, 90 percent of the almost $1 billion System Benefit Fund, originally intended to assist impoverished families with utility payments, would end up in the hands of the electric customers. Returning the money would be a huge boon to commercial users, not necessarily Texas families. Retail electric customers in competitive areas like Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth would get refunds of approximately $119 per electric meter.

Line of the Day:

“I just want to go home and feed my cat.” —Sen. John Carona near the end of the debate that turned his compromise payday loan bill into a serious reform bill.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. Today, the House floor will hear HB 166, which would set up an innocence commission to investigate potential cases of wrongful conviction.

3. Sen. Dan Patrick’s (R-Houston) big charter school expansion bill, SB 2, is scheduled to be discussed in the House Public Education Committee. The bill’s already passed the Senate.

2. The House will also hear Sunset legislation that proposes continuing the Texas Lottery Commission for another 12 years.

John Carona
State Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas)

After a dramatic false start on Thursday, the big payday loan reform bill—tediously-negotiated by Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas)—easily cleared the Senate. But not before senators agreed to changes that would more or less kill the payday and auto-title industry in Texas.  You read that right: The Texas Senate ultimately voted for legislation that would shut down most of the payday and title lending stores in Texas.

Over the course of 15 amendments, Senate Bill 1247 went from milquetoast to something that Ralph Nader would lavish with praise. The trouble is that it may give the payday lending industry, with its legions of high-paid lobbyists, an opening to bring the whole thing down.

By the end, a beleaguered-looking Carona was calling his bill an “ugly baby.”

“I just want to go home and feed my cat,” said Carona.

The upper chamber ignored Carona’s warnings that anything that went beyond his tediously-negotiated modest set of new regulations would jeopardize the bill.

First, Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) got into his twitchy bulldog mode, insisting that Carona consider removing a provision that pre-empts city payday regulations. (Austin, Dallas, El Paso and San Antonio have passed near-identical ordinances setting limits on the number and size of loans consumers can enter into. Houston has enacted a much-weaker ordinance.)

“[The industry] will continue to rape and rob the people of Houston,” he said, if cities aren’t allowed to set their own rules. Carona explained that pre-emption is paramount because without it, the lenders will move to kill the legislation.

Removing the pre-emption clause “has the effect of not leaving us any hope of passing” the bill, Carona said. “i’ve come to believe that [passing nothing] is your real objective here.”

But the Senate waved Whitmire’s amendment through on a 21-9 vote. Notably, a stampede of payday lobbyists left the Senate gallery at that point.

By an 18-12 vote, the Senate approved an amendment that would cap rates at 36 percent APR, a move that would probably shut down the payday and title loan business in Texas. Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth), who has made payday loan reform one of her top priorities, also secured an amendment to close the loophole that allows these lenders to charge unlimited fees.

In one sense, it’s remarkable that one half of the Legislature—plied with millions in campaign contributions from the industry—passed such a strong, pro-consumer bill. On the other hand, Carona’s admonitions about the limits of the possible probably still apply. The action now moves to the House… and wherever else the hired guns do their business.

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