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Texas State Capitol in Austin, Tex.
Patrick Michels

The Lead:

Wrongful convictions have become all too common in Texas, and every legislative session features another horrific tale of an innocent person spending decades in prison and reform bills aimed at preventing similar injustices in the future—from Tim Cole to Anthony Graves and now Michael Morton.

The House is scheduled to debate Senate Bill 1611—the Michael Morton act—on the floor today. The bill would strengthen requirements that prosecutors turn over all key evidence to defense lawyers. Morton spent 25 years behind bars after being falsely convicted of his wife’s 1986 murder. (You can read about Morton’s case in this seminal Texas Monthly story, which earlier this month won a National Magazine Award for feature writing.) There is strong evidence that prosecutors in the case withheld evidence from the defense that could have proved Morton’s innocence.

As Brandi Grissom notes in the Texas Tribune, the bill will be debated on the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brady v. Maryland, which established that defense lawyers were entitled to exculpatory evidence.

The House will also hear Senate Bill 825, which would give exonorees more time to file a grievance to hold prosecutors accountable for misconduct. Morton helped push both bills forward by personally testifying in support of them earlier in the session. 

Weekend Headlines:

1. The push to find a sustainable funding stream for TxDOT appears dead this session, the Statesman reports (subscription now required).

2. With just two weeks left in the session, the pressure is showing, as advocacy groups push to get their bills passed. The Tribune profiles Raise Your Hand Texas and the influence it has had on education reform.

3. Ted Cruz received high praise for his intellect from his alma mater over the weekend. But is he ready to run in 2016?

Line of the Day:

“I have a text message right here that says they were for it as it came out of committee.” —Rep. Dan Huberty during House debate on virtual school bill, as quoted in the Trib’s profile of Raise Your Hand Texas.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. The House will hear Senate Bill 15 by Sen. Kel Seliger that would restrict the powers of the boards of regents at Texas’ public universities. The dispute between the the UT Regents and the Lege will once again be a focus of attention.

2. A Senate bill that would ban the use of tanning facilities by minors is also up on the House floor.

The Lead:

The House was on the clock last night: Midnight Thursday marked the deadline to pass bills on second reading. House members churned through quite a few bills in the final hours, but dozens more withered on the calendar and are finished, at least for now (they could resurface as amendments to other bills).

One thing that seemed pretty dead was a plan to use vehicle sales tax revenue and fees to fund growing transportation needs, as the Observer reports. Conservative reps were divided—raising fees is a back-door tax increase, after all—and the author of the bill, Rep.  Drew Darby, killed it because Gov. Rick Perry promised to veto any transportation funding unless it’s purely vehicle sales tax revenue.

The headline-making drone bill passed the House, as the Observer’s Beth Cortez-Neavel reports. The bill would make it a Class C misdemeanor to take pictures with drones, though there are some exemptions for DPS. Just before the midnight deadline, lawmakers passed a measure that gives children 14 years old and up legal consent to immunizations, despite concern that the bill would allow kids to get the HPV vaccine. And just like that, it felt like 2007 again.

Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. The last bill the House approved last night was a bill to reimburse universities for absorbing the tuition of veterans or their dependents under the Hazlewood Act, as the Dallas Morning News writes.

2. The House also approved a bill that extends free or reduced-cost breakfasts to all students in a school in which 80 percent of the students are eligible for the program, as the Texas Tribune reports.

3. The Associated Press reports on the stalled budget negotiations between Rep. Jim Pitts and Sen. Tommy Williams. Pitts promises that things will get “worked out.”

Line of the Day:

“We shouldn’t be burying our treasure.” –Rep. Dan Branch (R-Dallas) on spending from the rainy day fund.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. The House will complete third readings of bills passed yesterday. Today is the deadline for the House to pass House bills to the Senate.

Rep. Scott Turner (R-Frisco) with other voucher advocates
Patrick Michels
Representatives lining up at the back mic.

The Lead:

There are so many ways to kill a bill in the Texas Legislature, and many bills will meet their demise today: It’s deadline for the House chamber to pass House bills on second reading.

Monday was the last day for House committees to report House bills out favorably to the floor. A lot of bills did not make it, like Denton Republican Rep. Myra Crownover’s House Bill 400, which would have eliminated smoking in certain workplaces throughout the state. The committees’ jobs now are to work on Senate bills.

And today any House bill that hopes to pass this session must get through a second reading by midnight tonight. Then it still has to make it through a third reading and pass on to the Senate by the end of Friday.

There are ways to revive proposals, of course. Texas Tribune reporter Ross Ramsey told StateImpact Texas that late in the session, lawmakers start repeating a weird phrase: “I’m looking for a vehicle,” Ramsey says. It means they’re looking to revive their bill and attach it as an amendment to “a Senate bill or something else that is further along in the process and still alive.”

According to the Legislative Reference Library more than 4,000 House bills were filed this year, up a few hundred from 2011. So far 1,757 have been reported out of committee and the full House has approved 669 bills (last session, 797 House bills passed into law). The House will pass quite a few more before tonight’s deadline.

Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. San Antonio Democratic Rep. Mike Villarreal called a press conference yesterday to press for a House committee to pass a watered-down version of the Senate’s payday loan reform bill to the House floor as soon as possible. The Observer‘s Forrest Wilder reports Villarreal is so adamant to stop usury that, if the reform bill doesn’t pass, he promises to travel around the state helping cities draft ordinances to restrict payday loans.

2. The Quorum Report (subscribers only) reports that some Republicans are trying to defund the Public Integrity Unit, a section of the Travis County DA’s office that investigates criminal allegations against state lawmakers. They’re using Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg’s DWI arrest as an argument for moving the PIU from the Travis County District Attorney’s office to the Office of Attorney General Greg Abbott. Word is Republicans would rather be investigated by their own party.

3. A once almost unanimously supported bill to create a new super school and medical school in the Valley is stalling in the Senate after McAllen Sen. Chuy Hinojosa introduced an amendment that would move the school to his district in Hidalgo County, instead of waiting for an advisory board to decide on the location.

4. The Burnt Orange Report has the details on a bill passed out of the House yesterday to protect public schools’ right to call a dressed-up holiday pine tree a “Christmas Tree.”

Line of the Day:

“Either way, members of the House should vote to see if we should add more transparency to ourselves… Before we start to ask other elected officials, other agencies, to be more transparent, we should start with ourselves.” —Rep. Giovanni Capriglione on the demise of his transparency bill that would require lawmakers to disclose connections to businesses with government contracts.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. The House deadline. We’ll have reporters on the House floor until adjournment probably somewhere around midnight. We’re looking at a few bills, including Dallas Republican Dan Branch’s HB 25, which would increase the percentage of performance-based funding that could be withheld from higher institutions. There’s also bills on public breastfeeding, student misconduct in public schools, groundwater conservation and taser and mace regulations.

2. President Obama will be visiting Manor and Austin today to talk about economic growth. Traffic should be fun.

The Lead:

The franchise tax came into existence in 2006 and was trouble from the start. Businesses hated that it taxed their gross receipts instead of their profits, meaning they would pay the franchise tax even if they didn’t earn a profit. Worse, the tax never brought in as much money as promised for Texas schools, falling $4 billion to $5 billion short every year. That has left Texas with a ongoing budget hole every year since.

Lawmakers took on the troubled franchise tax yesterday when HB 500 hit the House floor. Their response to the tax’s flaws? Tax cuts!

As the Observer’s Patrick Michels writes, the House stuffed HB 500 with $667 million in tax breaks for small businesses, including $270 million in tax reductions added through amendments during the floor debate, as House members moved to give tax breaks to businesses in their districts. The bill, which also contains sweeping tax reform changes, passed on a preliminary vote. It’s expected to win final House passage today.

The measure still faces significant opposition in the upper chamber, the Texas Tribune reports, as some senators fear that the bill is too costly. Some House Democrats made that point on the House floor yesterday, wondering why lawmakers would pass tax breaks when the franchise tax already doesn’t supply the state with the money they expected in 2006. Rep. Yvonne Davis (D-Dallas) called it, “a pork barrel add-on attempt to get money for your special interests and special projects.”

 Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. Yesterday, Rep. Eddie Lucio III (D-Harlingen) brought to the floor House Bill 887, which would create a pilot program for public schools football players to obtain concussion insurance. The bill passed, but Lucio said that it stops short of the protections he had hoped for when drafting the legislation. The bill originally would have limited full-contact football practices to prevent brain damage in players. The Observer‘s Beth Cortez-Neavel has more details.

2. Rep. John Zerwas declared what had already become obvious: Medicaid expansion appears dead this session. Zerwas told the Dallas Morning News that his bill to create a “Texas solution” to expand Medicaid under Obamacare is finished.

3. Speaking of Obamacare, Dr. Steven Hotze, a GOP activist and donor, has decided that one U.S. Supreme Court battle over the health care law just wasn’t enough. He announced yesterday that he plans to file suit against Obamacare. Good luck with that.

Line of the Day:

“It had an $8 billion hole in it when we passed it. It never performed the way they thought it was going to perform, and what we’re doing today is not fixing that problem. This has become just a pork barrel add-on attempt to get money for your special interests and special projects.” —Dallas Democrat Yvonne Davis on the business tax breaks in HB 500.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. Rep. Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio) and Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas) are holding a press conference today to call for the House to pass Senate Bill 1247 (the payday lending reform bill).

2. The House will be churning through as many bills as possible ahead of tomorrow’s deadline to pass House bills. The House has a full calendar, including HB 741, which would require government entities to make “reasonable accommodations” for their employees to pump breast milk at work.

Texas State Capitol in Austin, Tex.
Patrick Michels

The Lead:

It’s looking more and more likely that Texas high school kids will soon have to take fewer standardized tests to graduate. One of the session’s biggest education bills, House Bill 5, finally passed the Senate yesterday. It’s a major victory for opponents of standardized tests. The bill, as the Observer‘s Liz Farmer reports, reduces the number of standardized tests required for graduation.

The bill also sets up new curriculum standards, which were a source of intense dispute and led to backroom negotiations that delayed the bill over the weekend. Lawmakers were divided over whether Texas schools prepare all kids for college or steer some toward career training and job skills. Supporters hope the bill does both. In the end, the measure passed unanimously. It now moves to a conference committee, which will work out differences between House and Senate versions.

Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. University students could soon get to participate in free dialogue and open debate in the classroom—with a gun by their side. The House passed a bill yesterday that would allow the president of a college or university to decide whether or not concealed weapons will be allowed on campus and prohibits a student from facing criminal charges if they are found with a concealed gun on a no-gun campus.

2. Rep. Chris Turner’s bill that proposed to ban political “double-dipping” died in committee yesterday. The bill—which would ban veteran state officials from drawing both a state salary and tapping their state pension at the same time— lacked support. That means Gov. Perry, who was caught double-dipping last year, can sleep easy now: He remains one of the highest paid governors in the country.

3. A bill to reform the governor’s Emerging Technology Fund passed the House on second reading yesterday, as the Texas Tribune reports. The tech fund has been accused of engaging in cronyism for aiding the governor’s political allies with grants for tech projects.

Line of the Day:

“The goal is for our students to graduate ready for college and career and hopefully both, but we know not every student’s going to college, not every student is going into a career so we designed a system, I think, where every student has that opportunity and … we’re going to let their passion lead them instead of a system lead them.” —Dan Patrick, in his defense of HB 5 on the Senate floor.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. A franchise tax cleanup bill, HB 500, is scheduled for debate on the House floor. Here’s a good overview.

2. The House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety will hear a bill by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa that would overhaul the Forensic Science Commission. The FSC has seen its share of controversy (see the Cameron Todd Willingham inquiry) but has been mostly free of scandal lately. Hinojosa’s bill would institute a number of reforms, including altering the makeup of the commission.

3. The calendar. Yesterday was the last day for House committees to pass House bills. The deadline for the full House to pass House bills is Thursday.The crunch is on.

The Lead:

It was gun-show day on Saturday in the Texas House. The Lower Chamber, on its first working Saturday of the session, passed 14 out of 15 gun bills, the Observer’s Beth Cortez-Neavel reports. The bills passed despite concerns some Democrats expressed that the hastily taken voice votes didn’t allow members to fully consider the consequences of each bill. The measures, among other things, will make it easier for schools to have armed guards, reduce the number of training hours needed for a Concealed Handgun License, and withhold state funding from any state agency that enforces federal gun-control laws.

Attorney General Greg Abbott reportedly helped author that last measure—an effort to essentially nullify federal gun control. That would appear unconstitutional, and several lawmakers pointed that out during Saturday’s debate. But why would some crusty old thing like the U.S. Constitution stop the Texas House?

House members weren’t the only ones shooting their mouths off, er, making a stand for guns. Gov. Rick Perry caused a media controversy with his dramatic introduction at the National Rifle Association convention in Houston on Friday.

With the gun debate over, it’s back to regularly scheduled legislating today. The House has a full calendar of bills to consider.

Weekend Headlines:

1. Divisive debates over women’s health have been rare this legislative session, especially compared to the controversies of 2011, the Texas Tribune writes. Legislators are compromising to secure more funding for the women’s health services.

2. In an interesting twist, the business lobby could pressure the Legislature enough to get rainy day funds approved for a water plan, as the Dallas Morning News reports. State general revenue funds could be eaten up by the water plan if rainy day funds aren’t approved, which could mean no tax breaks for businesses. Heaven forbid.

Line of the Day:

“This is a bill about saying that we’re making a political statement, that we don’t like President [Barack] Obama, that we don’t like what’s going on in Washington, and that we can go back home and say we took it to the president.” —Democratic Rep. Chris Turner (Grand Prairie) during Saturday’s gun-bill debate.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. The Senate may actually pass House Bill 5, which restructures high school degree plans to offer more career and technical opportunities and reduces the number of end-of-course exams. The bill got caught up in back-room negotiations on Friday after Sen. Leticia Van de Putte introduced an amendment aimed at maintaining a more structured degree plan.

2. The House a long calendar of bills to consider, including HB 887, which would limit full-contact football practices for high school and middle school teams to one hour per week. Studies have shown that small impacts sustained during football practices can contribute to severe brain damage. Full-contact practices, of course, are a Texas high school football tradition. So this one should be interesting.

3. The House will also hear the bi-partisan-backed House Bill 953, which would offer a franchise tax credit to businesses that do research in partnership with a Texas higher education institution.

Texas State Capitol in Austin, Tex.
Patrick Michels

The Lead:
Lawmakers are giving up their Saturday—the first chamber weekend workday of the session—to debate a slew of controversial gun bills.

The gun day fun day festivities include legislation that would decrease the classroom hours required to get a concealed handgun license, allow licensed gun owners to bring guns onto higher education campuses, designate some public school workers as gun-carrying school marshals, and nullify any federal gun laws from being enforced in Texas. That’s just a few.

Many of the bills are expected to pass in the House, but may have difficulty getting ahead in the Senate according to the Dallas Morning News.

Yesterday’s Headlines:
1. The House voted yesterday to continue the Texas Economic Development Act, a program created in 2001 that allows school districts to offer property tax cuts to businesses. According to the Texas Tribune, critics of the program say it allows school districts to “pick winners in the marketplace and is not worth the resulting increase in jobs and investment.”

2. The Dallas Morning News reports the House tentatively approved a bill that would help the fight against the West Nile Virus by letting local health officials enter abandoned or uninhabited and foreclosed properties to treat standing water, where mosquitos breed. The bill still needs a two-thirds vote in the House on its final reading to become effective immediately.

3. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst announced on the Senate floor that, despite hours of closed-door negotiations, there weren’t enough votes on Friday to pass House Bill 5, the sweeping test reform bill championed by Sen. Dan Patrick that reduces standardized testing and changes graduation requirements. Dewhurst said later he intends to bring the bill up in the Senate on Monday, according to the Quorum Report (article subscription only).

Line of the Day:
“If he believes the answer to violent crime is not prosecuting felons and fugitives, not prosecuting gun crimes but going after the constitutional rights of law abiding citizens, I would like to invite the vice president to engage in an hour-long conversation and debate.” —U.S. Senator Ted Cruz’s open invitation to Vice President Joe Biden at Friday’s NRA National Convention in Houston.

What We’re Watching Today:
1. Guns.

2. Before the gun show begins, the House is slated to hear a sunset bill that would keep the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and a few other law enforcement agencies, running for 12 more years. There are 27 pre-filed amendments to the bill that could change how the agencies run.

3. Two House committees are also working weekend overtime: Ways and Means and Corrections.

The Lead:

Yesterday, the Senate passed the Texas Railroad Commission sunset bill, SB 212, which would rename the agency the “Texas Energy Resource Commission.” Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) carried the bill and, after a brief debate over whether the change would confuse the public—or whether to call it the “Texas Department of Oil and Gas” and, delightfully, TDOG for short—the bill passed without opposition. Other major changes to the agency include more restrictions on the Railroad Commissioners ‘ campaign fundraising.

Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. The House also passed an elementary school testing reform bill—its second of the week—which would let high-scoring kids skip state tests in certain grades. Implementing the measure, though, would require a waiver from federal law.

2. House Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) said Thursday that SJR 1—asking voters to approve spending from the Rainy Day Fund on water, transportation and schools—is a “no go” in the House. SJR 1 passed unanimously in the Senate last week.

Line of the Day:

“We weren’t sent here to govern like California,” said House Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) in the interview with the San Antonio Express News’ Peggy Fikac.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. The House schedule is full of bills worth watching today, including HB 1926 which would expand the state’s virtual course network and open it further to private online schools.

Texas State Capitol in Austin, Tex.
Patrick Michels
Texas State Capitol in Austin

The Lead:

The House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety met yesterday to begin legislative investigation  into the West fertilizer plant disaster. Lawmakers took no action yesterday, but speculated on emergency management procedures that took place and how they might have been improved. Many state agency officials testified that, in safety management of the plant before the explosion, they had been doing exactly what the law requires them to do.

“Everything changes from here on out, period,” committee chair Joe Pickett (D-El Paso) told reporters, according to the Texas Tribune. “I don’t think it’s a law that’s necessary, it’s an attitude.”

Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. Five members of GetEqual Texas, a pro-LGBT rights group, were arrested yesterday at the Capitol as they protested the holdup of SB 237, banning job discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, which hasn’t been given a committee vote. Their offense? Overstaying their welcome in conservative legislators’ offices. The members have been charged with criminal trespassing.

2. The House passed a measure capping the use of dedicated funds to certify the budget at $4 billion, part of a movement to ensure money collected for specific purposes gets spent properly. In the past, the Legislature usually devotes about $5 billion from dedicated to balance the budget.

Line of the Day:

“The NRA doesn’t do pep rallies. … We’re engaged in a long battle that will take years. We know it’s not over.” —Andrew Arulan­andam, NRA Director of Public Affairs. The National Rifle Association holds a national convention this weekend in Houston that is expected to draw 700,000 of the nation’s most gung-ho gun owners.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon’s HB 3238 syringe exchange pilot program bill is up on the House floor. The bill is supported by such groups as Mothers Against Teen Violence, and could help ensure safe needle use to prevent the spread of disease.

2. The Senate could hear HB 5, which relates to high school graduation requirements. Check out the Observer‘s coverage of the bill’s passage in the House and in Senate committee.

The Lead:

Payday loans in Texas tend to have astronomical interest rates and send poor families deep into debt. Lawmakers have made several efforts this session to curtail such practices and impose some restrictions on an influential industry.

But, after a wild committee hearing that lasted well into Monday night, payday reform this session may be dead, as the Observer’s Forrest Wilder reports. Industry insiders milled about the meeting late Monday night, and it appeared that only one member of the House Investments and Financial Services Committee—Rep. Mike Villarreal, author of the reform bill—was in favor of cracking down on payday establishment. With the rest of the committee apparently siding with industry, the reform bill’s prospects look bleak.

Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. The House passed a bill aimed at reining in the power given to Pearson, the English company that supplies many of the materials in Texas schools, as the Texas Tribune reports.

2. A multitude of gun rights bills were filed this session following the many mass shootings. However, only a few have any chance of seeing the light of day, the Austin American-Statesman writes.

Line of the Day:

“It is folly to kid ourselves into believing that if a person works hard enough, they’re going to make it. My mom works 60 to 70 hours a week. … She should be able to afford amazing things in life. Yet, she can’t even afford health care.” —Luis Veloz told lawmakers about Medicaid expansion.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. The House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee will hear invited testimony about the tragedy in West.

2. The House is scheduled to debate the biennial anti-salvia bill. It would add salvia—which can have similar effects as marijuana—to the list of banned substances.

3. And if you’re more interested in the real thing, Rep. Elliott Naishtat’s medical marijuana bill will be heard in the House Public Health Committee today.