Hot List

Texas State Capitol in Austin, Tex.
Patrick Michels

The Lead:

You know the session has gotten serious when the first major bill dies in the House on a point of order.

That’s what happened yesterday, when a major water bill that would have directed $2 billion from the rainy day fund to pay for water infrastructure projects was stopped on point of order, or procedural error, after hours of debate. As the Observer’s Forrest Wilder reports, House Democrats banded together to kill House Bill 11 with a point of order, “only because their demands to put more into Texas’ schools, and fully undo the cuts from 2011, were going unheeded.”

Last session saw $5.4 billion in cuts to public education, and Democrats saw this as their last point of leverage as a way to push for more funds for public education.

On the other side of the water debate, according to the Quorum Report (subscribers only), Gov. Rick Perry went against the Texas Public Policy Foundation—a conservative think-tank and Perry’s traditional ally—in a press conference earlier in the day to advocate using the rainy day fund to pay for the water plan.

How the House will get the water plan funded is somewhat hazy now, but the bill has a small chance to pass on to the Senate if it reaches a vote before the upcoming deadline for the House to pass House bills.

Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. The House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee heard a bill, dubbed the “Michael Morton Act,” that would require Texas prosecutors to provide evidence to defense lawyers in criminal cases and could prevent wrongful convictions, The Texas Tribune reports. Morton spent almost 25 years behind bars after being falsely convicted of his wife’s murder in the 1980s.

2. The Austin American-Statesman reports that the House approved a bill Monday that would eliminate standardized writing tests for  fourth and seventh grades and would trim down testing in all grades. It was a voice vote, and there was no opposition.

Line of the Day:

“Here was their argument. They said: ‘Listen, before you did this, the politics of it were great. The Democrats were the bad guys. The Republicans were the good guys. Now we all look like a bunch of squishes.’ Well, there is an alternative. You could just not be a bunch of squishes.” —U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in a video calling out Republican colleagues for joining Democrats to filibuster gun-control legislation in the U.S. Senate.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. The House will hear a sunset bill that will reinstate, for 12 more years, the Texas Commission on the Arts. The commission manages grants to Texas nonprofit arts and cultural organizations, designates cultural areas and promotes tourism.

2. The Senate Education Committee will hear a bill that would create a pilot program in the Dallas Independent School District that graduates students in three years straight into a career-preparatory program, part of a larger K-12 movement to eliminate the “four by four”—four mandated years of math and science courses—and allow for more students to filter directly into the workforce instead of taking the college path.

3. Senate Education Committee will also hear a bill that would—in light of the school finance lawsuits against the state’s unfair public ed funding system—create a report to evaluate the current funding system and how the Texas Education Agency weights each student’s needs.

The Lead:

Payday loans have become one of the session’s hottest topics. Some lawmakers and consumer advocates have said this session is the time to impose some restrictions on the payday and auto-title lenders—which charge up 600 percent interest—before the industry becomes too rich and powerful to rein in.

The Senate passed John Carona’s  SB 1247 last Monday. It was an odd debate, which included Carona accusing some of his colleagues of “shilling” for the industry. In the end, the Senate strengthened what had been a watered-down compromise bill. The measure, as passed by the Senate, would place a hard cap on the amount of interest lenders could charge. Some advocates—and Carona too—feared the beefed-up bill now has no chance to pass.

We’ll begin to find that out today when the House Investments and Financial Services Committee is scheduled to hear the payday loan bill.

Weekend Headlines:

1. Last Friday, the House passed HB 1025, an $875 million supplemental spending bill to provide funds for public schools and wildfire relief during the 2013 fiscal year, the Observer’s Liz Farmer reports. In addition to the original bill, an amendment passed that would reserve recovery funds for West, Texas.

2. According to the Quorum Report, the House has set a calendar for next Saturday, May 4. The first working weekend will hear a sunset bill for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

3. The Austin American-Statesman writes that lawmakers aren’t buying into Gov. Rick Perry’s $1.6 billion tax cut proposal.

Line of the Day:

“I still don’t believe he has done anything,” —Rep. Phil Stephenson about former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s money laundering conviction, as quoted by the San Angelo Standard-Times.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. The House Investments and Financial Services Committee will hear Sen. Carona’s payday loan bill that caused so much stir in the Senate.

2. A major water bill will reach the House floor today. It would instruct the comptroller to allocate money from the rainy day fund to water infrastructure projects. Some Democrats and tea partiers are rumored to oppose it.

3. The Senate Finance Subcommittee on Fiscal Matters is going to be discussing franchise tax exemptions today.

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

The Lead:

The continuing battle against discrimination in the workplace spread to the House floor on Thursday. House members grew emotional  discussing Rep. Senfronia Thompson’s bill that would align Texas lawsuit practices with the federal Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The talk shifted from a calm discussion on the bill to an impassioned debate on equal rights for women. Women reps from both parties banded together in support of the proposal, which eventually passed on a vote of 79 to 50.

The Senate is gone for the weekend. But the House will meet today and will vote on a $875 million supplemental spending bill that will augment state programs through August of this year. The bill, HB 1025, includes $500 million in public school funds.

Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. The House will soon hear a rapidly moving bill aimed at limiting political influence over state funding for technology projects. Good for transparency, not so good for Gov. Perry, whose Emerging Technology Fund has had an affinity for distributing grants to campaign contributors and friends of the governor.

2. The Austin American-Statesman reports that a bill to finance water infrastructure projects, one of the session’s major proposals, may not pass the House on Monday. The bill would steer $2 billion to finance the state water plan.

3. The Senate voted in favor of a bill that would require University of Texas regents to promptly respond to open records requests.

Line of the Day:

“We’ve had enough Bushes … It’s not just four families, or whatever.” —Former First Lady Barbara Bush, speaking from Dallas on the “Today” show on Thursday, responding to a question on whether her son and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush would run for president in 2016.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. The House vote on a $875 million state spending bill today. The bill includes $500 million to be allotted for public schools.

The Lead:

A House committee approved a campaign finance reform bill yesterday that would require certain nonprofits to disclose their political fund-raising. It’s the same bill the Senate passed, then tried to recall last week by asking the House to, in a highly unusual move, give the bill back (the House said no).

The bill, SB 346  by Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo), would require groups like Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, and its tea party enforcer Michael Quinn Sullivan (no friend of Speaker Joe Straus), to disclose the people donating to their political operations. Texans for Fiscal Responsibility has been a major player in campaigns the past several elections, challenging Straus’ leadership team for being, in its view, insufficiently conservative. The group doesn’t have to disclose much of the money it spends on Texas politics. The bill would bring that secret action into the light, requiring groups that spend more than $25,000 on an election cycle to report donors to the Texas Ethics Commission.

As Quorum Report writes, the House State Affairs Committee passed the bill with no amendments. It now goes to the House floor. If the full House passes the bill without any changes, the measure would go straight to the governor—no conference committee.  You’d think the bill likely faces a veto. But if it does pass, it would remove much of the secret money in Texas politics.

Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. Juvenile facility workers put kids into solitary confinement for a myriad of reasons, but a bill by Sen. Leticia Van de Putte could change that practice. The Observer’s Patrick Michels writes that not everyone agrees on the proposed change to limit solitary confinement for kids.

2. The UT soap opera continues. A House committee heard  a Senate bill to limit the UT Regents power, as the Observer’s Beth Cortez-Neavel reports.

3. Another repeat episode is Sen. Brian Birdwell’s attempt to revive legislation that’d allow people to carry weapons onto college campuses if they had a concealed handgun license, as the Texas Tribune reports.

Line of the Day:

“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.” –Retired Marine Staff Sgt. Erica Alva told a hearing on prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ workers.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. The Senate Finance Subcommittee on Fiscal Matters will hear two bills that would provide exemptions on the franchise tax, which already doesn’t bring in enough money. The plan is, of course, acclaimed by Gov. Rick Perry. His plan would cost about $1.6 billion over the next two years and he said the “money does more good in the hands of taxpayers than it does in the hands of government,” reported The Dallas Morning News. The committee will also hear Sen. Chuy Hinojosa’s bill to impose a fee on cigarettes.

2. Rep. Bill Callegari’s bill in the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee would allow people to drive 10 mph over the speed limit without getting fined. That may be the most sensible bill the Lege has considered all session.

3. The Homeland Security Committee will also hear Rep. Yvonne Davis’ bill that would require drug tests for people applying for a Concealed Handgun License. If it’s good enough for welfare applicants….

4. Texas is the land of high stakes testing, and apparently it happens as early as kindergarten and pre-K. The Senate Education Committee will hear Sen. Leticia Van de Putte’s bill to curtail such testing.

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.

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.

darkbluecapitolshorter

The Lead:

Senators struggled last week with Sen. John Carona’s (R-Dallas) legislation that would impose some watered-down regulations on the payday and auto-title lending industry. Carona’s bill, Senate Bill 1247, wouldn’t limit interest rates but would simply limit the number and size of loans that a person could take out, as the Observer’s Forrest Wilder explains.

Meanwhile the legislation would hand industry a major victory by preempting any city ordinance restricting payday loans, which have been known to charge 600 percent interest rates. Opponents of the bill say that it doesn’t do enough to regulate a predatory industry and could lead to new unhealthy lending practices.

When the bill first came to the Senate floor last Thursday, the debate wasn’t exactly smooth. Carona complained that two of his colleagues were working as “shills” for the industry, trying to turn votes against a relatively benign compromise bill. Carona eventually agreed to pull the bill down and wait over the weekend. There might have been a little lobbying going on this weekend. We’ll be watching for round two on payday loans in the Senate this afternoon to see if legislators are willing to make any changes to the lending practices in this state.

Weekend Headlines:

1. The fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, has environmentalists questioning whether regulations to monitor such chemical plants are too lax, The Texas Tribune reports.

2. Patti Kilday Hart reports in the Houston Chronicle that federal officials didn’t know that the fertilizer plant in West had so much ammonium nitrate on site. The plant had 270 tons of ammonium nitrate—1,300 times higher than the threshold that should have triggered federal oversight.

3. Lawmakers are considering two bills that would alter the retirement plans for teachers and state workers, including raising the retirement age. The Austin American-Statesman has the details.

4. Last week, lawmakers heard Rep. Matt Krause’s HB 360, which proposes to allow university student organizations to potentially restrict members based on, well, who they are. Kraus strenuously denied this was discrimination.

Line of the Day:

“The interests behind this bill have hired darn near every lobbyist in this town that needed employment. They are around every corner in this Capitol.” —Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas) during last week’s debate on his payday loan bill, SB 1247.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. The Senate Finance Subcommittee on Fiscal Matters will be hearing a proposal for a constitutional amendment that would require a 2/3 majority vote for the Legislature to raise taxes.

2. We’ll be watching the Senate to see if Sen. Carona’s payday loan bill reappears. 

Floor of the Texas Capitol lobby.
Jen Reel

The Lead:

We’ll say this for Sen. Dan Patrick: He keeps it interesting.

In an unusual move, the Houston Republican  pushed the Senate yesterday to take back a campaign finance bill by Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) that the senators had already passed and sent to the House.

Seliger’s SB 346, which he said has “everything to do with transparency,” would require 501C(4) and 501C(6) organizations—IRS designations used for social welfare and lobbying groups—to disclose their donors. The Quorum Report mentions this would include groups like Texans for Fiscal Responsibility run by Michael Quinn Sullivan who’s been enforcing tea party orthodoxy the past few sessions, marshaling money to go after Republicans he deems insufficiently conservative.

Patrick actually voted for the bill when it passed the Senate but then tried to undo that, arguing he didn’t realize the bill’s impact. Some folks might say, well, that’s too damn bad—he should have read the bill more closely the first time around or found another way to kill it (there are, of course, many ways to derail legislation at the end of a session). But Patrick won the vote, and the Senate tried to bring the bill back.

But the House, which had already technically taken possession of it, denied the request. By the time the Senate vote was over, the House had already referred it to State Affairs for hearing next Wednesday.

Rep. Charlie Geren has picked up the bill in the House. “Sen. Patrick is welcome to come testify against the bill if he feels the need to,” Geren told Quorum Report.

Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. Many jokes hit the Twittersphere yesterday warning Texans to text, Tweet and drive while they still can. The Observer’s Emily Mathis reports after 11 amendments and much discussion, Rep. Tom Craddick’s texting-while-driving ban passed through the House.

2. The Observer’s Olivia Messer reports that 10 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Texas’ designation of “homosexual conduct” as a criminal offense was unconstitutional, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee took up SB 538, which would finally remove the language from the Texas Penal Code.

3. The Austin American Statesman reports Rep. Byron Cook laid out a bill in House State Affairs yesterday that would allow undocumented immigrants to get a driver’s licenses and car insurance.

Line of the Day:

“How can you be in one part of the Capitol advocating for best practices in cancer research … and then on the other end arguing on behalf of industry saying tobacco companies need regulating a certain way?… That seems to be the story of the CPRIT Foundation. It’s just one conflict of interest after another.” —Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer on the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute’s (CPRIT) choice to hire a tobacco company to lobby on its behalf, as reported by the Texas Tribune.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. The House is scheduled to debate seven bills today on the floor, including HB 788, which would direct the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to regulate greenhouse gas permits and emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency does so currently.

2. The Senate State Affairs Committee has one bill on the menu for today: a redistricting bill that would would make the interim district maps used in the last election permanent.

3. The House Appropriations Committee started early this morning to discuss revenue bills, including HB 11 that would pull money from the rainy day fund to use for water projects, and a few other bills that discuss transportation and highway project financing.

The Lead:

We’ve reached day 100 of the session. Just 40 days left to complete the state’s business for the next two years without a special session.

Two of the major issues coming into the session—Medicaid expansion and school testing reform—remain unresolved, though we saw progress on both fronts yesterday.

The Senate Education Committee passed House Bill 5, which would reduce the number of standardized tests high school kids must pass to graduate, yesterday morning. The measure was voted out with a few changes from the House version.

Meanwhile, Rep. John Zerwas (R-Richmond) continues to push Medicaid expansion—well, he’s not calling it that exactly. It’s more like expanding health insurance to Texans that don’t have it. In House Appropriations subcommittee yesterday, he laid out HB 3791, which would push a “Texas solution”  so state officials could design a Medicaid expansion as Texas sees fit—a block grant approach, as John Reynolds writes for Quorum Report, that Zerwas hopes will satisfy the conservatives at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. We’ll see.

Yesterday’s headlines:

1. The Senate Natural Resources Committee voted out Senate Bill 957 by Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay). The measure would “streamline” the process that communities and environmental groups currently use to challenge permits to pollute. And by “streamline,” we mean make it easier for polluters to gain permits without nuisance from concerned citizens.

2. The Observer‘s Forrest Wilder examines how the payday loan industry is dividing and conquering consumer advocates this session. Advocates and Democrats are deeply divided over Sen. John Carona’s bill that would impose light regulations on payday loans, but would also hand the industry a major victory by preempting all city ordinances restricting their lending. At the Capitol, money still talks.

3. The troubles for CPRIT, the cancer-fighting agency, just keep coming. Jay Root reports in the Texas Tribune that CPRIT hired a tobacco lobbyist to help its cause at the Legislature. Irony alert.

Line of the Day:

“Maybe the Legislature should just go home and let The New York Times represent the House and the Washington Post represent the Senate.” —Dan Patrick (R-Houston) in the Senate Education Committee on the newspapers’ opposition to Texas reducing standardized testing.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. Rep. Tom Craddick’s texting-while-driving ban hits the House floor.

2. Senate Criminal Justice will hear a bill to repeal “homosexual conduct” as a criminal offense.

3. Senate Criminal Justice will also debate SB 780 by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa. The bill seeks to improve Texas’ indigent defense by ensuring that poor defendants eligible for counsel actually get a lawyer.

Texas State Capitol in Austin, Tex.

The Lead:

It took a mere 98 days, but Gov. Rick Perry finally unveiled his proposal for a $1.6 billion business tax cut at a news conference at the Austin Chamber of Commerce yesterday.

The timing is curious. The announcement comes well after both the House and the Senate budgets have been decided, after the bill-filing deadline and with less than six weeks remaining in the session. Perry urged lawmakers to pass a tax cut back in January, but this is his first stab at a specific proposal. The timing has many criticizing the initiative as political pandering.

Whether serious proposal or political stunt, the plan would need a minor miracle to pass this late in the session.

Weekend Headlines:

1. Legislators took a stab at payday lending reform yesterday in the House Investments and Financial Services Committee. It won’t be an easy journey for those who oppose the industry,as the Dallas Morning News reports.

2. House members debating the sunset bill for the Texas Ethics Commission in committee yesterday. The bill, which emerged from the sunset review of the agency, calls for greater transparency in campaign finances. Open government advocates praised parts of the bill but argued it doesn’t go far enough to empower the now-toothless Ethics Commission to oversee campaign fund-raising and spending. The AP has more.

3. Tea partiers met at the Capitol to criticize Gov. Perry’s proposals to expand spending for transportation. There’s just no pleasing some people.

Line of the Day:

“The state of Texas gets an ‘F’ on the environmental comprehensive issues, but what that really means is, it gets an F in healthcare.” —Rep. Lon Burnam speaking on Texas’ rankings on environmental issues in the recently released “Texas on the Brink” study.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. HB 5, which would reduce the number of standardized tests high school kids must pass to graduate, is up in the Senate Education Committee this morning.

2. The sporting goods sales tax debate is up again in House Appropriations subcommittee on Budget Transparency and Reform, as are two bills that consider Medicaid expansion.

3. House members will hear a slew of environmental bills up in the Natural Resources and Environmental Regulation committees. That includes Rep. Cindy Burkett’s HB 3117, which would allow the attorney general to undercut local governments. The AG could settle lawsuits brought by local governments against polluters without the locals’ consent.

4. Legislators will hear Rep. Eric Johnson’s bill in the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee that would reduce felony charges for prostitution.