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Texas State Capitol in Austin, Tex.
Patrick Michels

The Lead:

The big news yesterday was in the Senate, which passed a heavily amended version of Senate Education Chair Dan Patrick’s controversial charter school reform bill Thursday afternoon, with only one vote against. The bill originally would have removed a state cap on the number of state-issued charter schools, created a new education board to oversee charters, and required public-school districts to allow charters to occupy any empty facilities.

As the Observer‘s Liz Farmer reports, Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) offered an amendment that—instead of eliminating the cap altogether—would set it at 305 by 2019 and would also impose a cap on out-of-state charter schools. Patrick accepted the change along with several other Democratic amendments. Just before the bill passed, senators applauded the “new” Dan Patrick and asked him to remember this feat of bipartisan cooperation.

Yesterday’s Headlines:

1 The Senate passed an amended version of SB 21, which mandates drug testing for some Texans seeking unemployment benefits, the Quorum Report writes. It was the second drug-testing bill the Senate passed in two days. Both were heavily amended to attract Democratic support.

2. The Texas Tribune reports that Senate Finance Committee Chair Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) laid out his plan to filter $6 billion from the rainy day fund into transportation and water projects and laid the groundwork for a discussion on using some of the funds for public education.

Line of the Day:

“Perhaps they do not understand the difference between ‘inconvenient’ and ‘confidential’… I cannot help but note the irony of Chair Powell’s complaints, given the sweeping demands for information demanded by some regents from [University of Texas at Austin] personnel.” —Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) to the Texas Tribune  about the UT regents’ refusal to turn over documents to the Legislature

What We’re Watching Today:

1. It’s Friday, and the Legislature is still in town. Well, House members are around anyway—the House’s first working Friday of 2013, a clear sign that we’ve entered the session’s final stretch. The House is meeting today at 10 a.m. A few bills are up on third and final reading, including HB 1642, the Port of Houston Authority Sunset Bill. The bill would limit terms for port authority commissioners, require the port authority to pay for a review by the Sunset Advisory Committee in the 2016-17 biennium.

2. The House Public Health Committee will meet at 9 a.m., but as of this writing no agenda has been posted yet.

The Lead:

Nothing brings out the furor at the Capitol like a debate over abortion. And we may see plenty of it this afternoon when the House State Affairs Committee will hear two major abortion bills. The most controversial one is Republican Jodie Laubenberg’s “fetal pain” bill, HB 2364, which would ban abortions after 20 weeks, with few exceptions. The bill is built around the controversial premise that fetuses at 20 weeks of gestation can feel pain, a notion that no reputable scientific study has yet found true.

In the same hearing, the State Affairs Committee is scheduled to hear Houston Republican Sarah Davis’ bill that would remove language linking breast cancer to abortion in mandated state materials given to abortion facilities. That supposed link is not only unfounded, recent scientific research has disproven it.

Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. Sen. Dan Patrick pulled out all the stops defending his school voucher bill. The Observer‘s Patrick Michels reports: “A cardinal, a bishop and a rabbi walked into the Senate Education Committee this morning” to endorse Patrick’s voucher plan to create private school scholarships out of business tax money.

2. Senators discussed the state water plan in the Senate Natural Resources Committee. Colorado River basin rice farmers faced down the Highland Lakes communities and the city of Austin, as the Observer‘s Forrest Wilder reports.

3. In the House Transparency committee, members of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas answered to committee members’ questions about CPRIT’s recent rebranding move, as legislators continued their ongoing efforts to reform the troubled institution.  

Line of the day:

“[Amarillo Bishop Patrick] Zurek recalled the Catholic Church’s proud history of openness and transparency. ‘We have never hidden any records,’ he said, ‘in any diocese that I have been in.’” —The Observer‘s Patrick Michels writing about yesterday’s voucher debate in Senate Ed.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. Women’s rights are a hot topic in the House State Affairs Committee today, with a bill on fetal pain that would limit abortions after 20 weeks, and a bill that would limit references in state materials that link breast cancer with abortion.

2. Sen. John Carona’s bill that would create the Texas Gaming Commission is up in the Senate Business and Commerce Committee. Gambling supporters just keep rolling the dice.

3. Sen. Wendy Davis has a bill up in the Senate Economic Development Committee that would require an audit of Gov. Rick Perry’s  Texas Enterprise Fund. That hearing comes two days after a Texans for Public Justice report found that companies receiving Enterprise Fund grants donated more than $3 million to the state’s stop officials.

4. Rep. Senfronia Thompson’s bill on the governor retaining authority when out of state hits the House floor today. The bill would specify who is in control if disaster strikes and the governor is out of the state. So basically, if Kim Jong-Un makes it to Austin we’re all prepared.

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

The Lead:

The House passed its version of the 2014-2015 state budget late Thursday night. As the Observer‘s Patrick Michels reported, the amendment that caused perhaps the biggest stir was Rep. Abel Herrero’s effort to block public money from being spent on private K-12 schools, otherwise known as vouchers. The amendment passed, with House members voting overwhelmingly against school vouchers. Even with  Senate Education Committee Chair Dan Patrick touting vouchers in the Upper Chamber, Thursday’s House vote seemed a strong indication that vouchers are dead this session.

Quorum Report noted over the weekend that the anti-voucher amendment may not have been technically correct, because money for vouchers wouldn’t flow through the Texas Eduction Agency—which is what Herrero’s amendment prevented. But if nothing else, the vote served more as a strong political statement.

The other story of the budget debate was the blowout losses suffered by the tea party. Liz Farmer reported that tea party freshmen Reps Jeff Leach, Jonathan Stickland and Matt Schaefer struggled to garner support for a few amendments that would move money from various sections of the budget into the Teacher Retirement System—an effort not appreciated by some other conservative House members. As the budget debate showed,  the tea party’s influence in the Texas House has been greatly diminished since 2011.

Weekend Headlines:

1. The Texas Tribune reports that the UT System Regents v. the world (i.e. UT-Austin President Bill Powers, the Texas Legislature and the Texas Public Information Act) debacle isn’t breaking for the weekend—unlike many of our lawmakers. University of Texas System Regents Chair Gene Powell is wondering just how open Texas open records laws are concerning the UT System, and four UT System Regents are calling for a board meeting sometime this week on whether to withhold documents that lawmakers are requesting. Meanwhile, the House passed a few budget amendments carving away at the regents’ funding and authority.

2. Saturday morning hundreds of gun-control advocates rallied on the Capitol steps, as the Austin American-Statesman reported. Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, Rep. Elliott Naishtat, Texas Gun Sense founder John Woods and others pushed for more background checks and tighter gun restrictions.

Line of the day:

“The specifics of the actual skirmishes are more complex — the latest fight is over who should conduct what many consider an unnecessary external review of an internal review that was externally reviewed — which means that they fall under the jurisdiction of several legislative committees.” —The Texas Tribune‘s explanation of what’s going on between UT-Austin Bill Powers, the UT System Board of Regents and the legislature.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. Both the Senate and House chambers are not scheduled to meet until 2 p.m. today, extending their long weekend as much as possible.

2. The Senate Finance subcommittee on Fiscal Matters is hearing Sen. Kevin Eltife’s SJR 47, a constitutional amendment that would increase the state sales tax rate and dedicate funds to the Texas Department of Transportation.That’s needed because TxDOT has maxed out its credit card.

3. Sen. Rodney Ellis has a bill scheduled to be heard in the Senate Open Government Committee that would expand the open records act and make clear that information related to government contracts with private companies are subject to the open records law.

The Lead:

It’s budget day in the House. It’s the only opportunity for most representatives to influence how the state allocates its budget of $193.8 billion. House members have filed 267 budget amendments that they will begin debating not long after the House convenes at 9 a.m. By rule, amendments can’t add money to the budget—so House members are limited to shifting money from one program to another.

The House budget spends $1 billion more on public education than the version the Senate passed last month, but less on health and human services. Those are likely to be two areas of intense debate today. Meanwhile, as the Texas Tribune reports, a group of House Republican freshmen have filed amendments to shift money from various state programs into the Teacher Retirement System. For instance, one amendment proposes to shift millions the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality uses for air quality assessment into the Teacher Retirement System. These plans were dealt a setback yesterday when the Texas Retired Teachers Association announced it was opposed to the freshmen’s plan.

We’re also likely to see debate over funding family-planning services. It was during the budget floor debate two years ago that House members voted to remove two-thirds of the state’s family planning funding. That’s caused more than 60 clinics to close and removed services from hundreds of thousands of women. The current budget contains a proposal to restore family planning funding through a preventive health care fund.

Two years ago, the budget debate felt like the Bataan death march. This time the state has more money to play with, so the budget debate should be cheerier. But it will likely last well into the night and could bleed into tomorrow. Keep an eye out for up-to-date Observer coverage. That’s all assuming North Korea doesn’t follow through on its threats.

Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. In the Senate Committee on Business and Economic Development, legislators discussed a bill yesterday that would ban discrimination on homosexuality in the workplace.  Christian conservative groups weren’t thrilled with the idea.

2. The Senate passed a reform bill for the troubled Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas. The bill increases state control of the agency, which has faced accusations of cronyism.

3. The Senate Higher Education Committee passed Sen. Kel Seliger’s SB 15 yesterday. The bill would limit the power of the governing boards of public universities in Texas. This comes after accusations that the University of Texas Board of Regents has moved from overseeing the university to micromanaging it.

4. In other news, the situation in North Korea is becoming more volatile. Don’t panic quite yet, though. The City of Austin assures residents that the situation is under control—and at worst, they advise, just duck and cover.

Line of the Day:

“I’ve shed blood for this country and there are rights that I don’t have … It is time for this state to recognize people for who they are, on their merit, for their leadership, and their professionalism.” —Retired Staff Sgt. Eric Alva testifying for the anti-discrimination bill. Alva was the first Purple Heart recipient of the Iraq War.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. The House budget debate. Check out the Trib’s pre-debate analysis.

The Lead:

Slower day at the Capitol today—the calm before the storm. Tomorrow the House will begin debating the two-year state budget, and lawmakers have pre-filed 267 amendments. That’s not surprising. The budget debate on the floor is the one chance most House members have to impact how Texas spends its money.

Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. Yesterday, the Senate Education Committee heard another bill on CSCOPE, the controversial curriculum tool that has enraged tea party groups. The debate lasted well into the evening, with a few outbursts from Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston).

2. The troubled CPRIT foundation, created to support cancer research, will shut down in 60 days, the Austin American-Statesman reports.

3. The Texas Tribune writes that Senate Finance Chair Tommy Williams is crafting a Medicaid reform plan that would use taxpayer money to help uninsured Texans buy private insurance plans.

4. While the Senate Education Committee debates standardized testing and teacher pay, Kyron Burdine, a junior at Arlington High School, was recently suspended for writing “YOLO” on his STAAR test and tweeting it to Texas Education Agency officials.

Line of the Day:

“I do trust the superintendents and educators. We have to until proven differently, and I believe in local control.” —Senator Dan Patrick (R-Houston) said in the CSCOPE debate in the Senate Education Committee.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. In the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee today, lawmakers will hear bills that would eliminate the Driver Responsibility Program, which piles fines and penalties on people given various traffic violations. The program has put many Texans deep in debt.

2. House State affairs is hearing HCR 58, which would permit the use of the word “God” at public gatherings and display the Ten Commandments in public schools and other government buildings.

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One of this session’s hottest issues has been whether Texas will take a Medicaid expansion deal offered by the federal government. Under Medicaid expansion, roughly 1.5 million more Texans would be covered under the health insurance program, while the feds would provide $100 billion to pay for it, and the state would have to pay $15 billion over a 10-year period. Many states have accepted the deal. But Texas’ leaders remain opposed.

Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz will hold a press conference later this morning at the Capitol to reiterate their strong opposition to Medicaid expansion in the state.

The Texas Tribune reports that an unauthorized source involved in the event planning said all three lawmakers will “stand together to demand greater flexibility from the Obama administration to operate the state’s existing health care system for poor children and the disabled as Texas sees fit.”

The Tribune also reports that the Dems are ready with a response press conference led by U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-San Antonio), his brother, San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, and the Texas Hospital Association.

Weekend Headlines:

1. The Observer‘s Melissa del Bosque reported Friday that some county jails need a bailout. State legislators are looking to more affordable rehabilitative programs rather than filling the state’s 10,000 empty jail beds.

2. Pre-filed budget amendments—in advance of the House budget debate—by House Appropriations Committee Chair Jim Pitts (R-Waxahachie) would limit the authority University of Texas System regents would have over the Available University Fund. The Texas Tribune reports regents could lose power over how funds are spent.

3. The Dallas Morning News compiled a brief legislative “crunch-time” summary of where we stand in the session so far.

Line of the Day:

“It’s not the same warm place Austin is. When people speak to me on the elevator, I’m kind of surprised.” —New U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, a Fort Worth Democrat, on the differences between the Texas Legislature and the U.S. Congress, as quoted in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. The House chamber will convene around 2 p.m. today and will probably just hear honorary/congratulatory resolutions. We’re still waiting on the House to pass its version of the budget. The House is scheduled to take up the budget on Thursday. The full Senate doesn’t meet until Tuesday morning.

2. The House Committee on Government Efficiency and Reform will hear a few bills that would change the definition of “information” in the Texas Open Meetings Act and the Texas Public Information Act. That’s always worth keeping an eye on.

3. This morning’s dueling press conferences over Medicaid expansion.

The Lead:

The Senate Health and Human Services Committee heard testimony yesterday morning on one of the session’s more controversial proposals, Senate Bill 11, which would subject some welfare applicants to drug screening. Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), the bill’s author, presented a toned-down committee substitute that would bar only adults from receiving benefits in the event of a failed drug screening, meaning their children would still be eligible for benefits. That had been opponents’ main objection to the bill. Adults could still be subject to a lifetime ban from benefits but only after testing positive for drugs three times. And a “protective payee” provision was added that would allow a relative, like a grandmother, to receive benefits on a child’s behalf, if the parent had failed drug tests. The changes satisfied Scott McCown from the liberal Center for Public Policy Priorities and Democrats on the committee. The committee passed the revised bill 9-0. Let’s hear it for compromise.

Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. The House floor yesterday saw its first major debate, which dragged into Tuesday night, with representatives amending Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock’s HB 5. The bill would change Texas’ high school graduation requirements as well as its accountability and testing systems. The House passed the measure 145-2.

2. The Texas Tribune compared the current House and Senate versions of the budget. The big difference:  The House spends more on public ed and less on Medicaid. That could change next week when the budget reaches the House floor.

Line of the Day:

“If they don’t want to go to college, they shouldn’t have to get a permission slip signed by their parents if they want to do something else with their lives.” —Rep. Joe Deshotel (D-Beaumont) while debating HB 5 yesterday.

What We’re Watching Today:

 1. No rest for the weary today. The full House will be back at it debating HB 4, a big water bill that would fund certain infrastructure projects in the state water plan.

 2. House State Affairs will hear two anti-abortion bills. HB 2816 would require physicians to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. This is quickly becoming a big anti-abortion session.

3.  Sen. Kel Seliger’s  SB 15 will be up for hearing in Senate Higher Education. A lot of people have their eyes on this bill, which would restrict powers of university governing boards. Looking at you, University of Texas.

The Lead:

It’s a big day at the Capitol. Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock’s House Bill 5 goes to the House floor for debate today. This is one of the myriad of bills that proposes to lower STAAR testing requirements for high school graduation. As it is, thousands of students are currently off-track to graduate because of testing requirements, and lawmakers are expected to at least reduce the number end-of-course tests students must take to graduate. But pro-testing advocates have been pushing back lately. It should be quite the debate. House members have filed more than 160 amendments.

Not to be outdone, senators will be hearing a high-profile bill today too. Sen. Jane Nelson’s Senate Bill 11 will be debated in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee this morning. That’s the bill that would require drug tests for welfare applicants. Should be a fun day at the Capitol.

Yesterday’s Headlines:

1.The federal government announced its decision to take the Title X family-planning grant away from the state of Texas yesterday and award it instead to a coalition of providers,  the Women’s Health and Family Planning Association of Texas. The initial grant is for $6.5 million dollars to cover birth control, wellness exams and other family-planning services. After the deep cuts to family planning in 2011, the feds apparently decided the state wasn’t the best steward of family-planning funds.

1. The Senate Committee on Open Government approved a bill yesterday that proposes to set up public online message boards on which legislators can communicate between meetings, The Houston Chronicle reports.

2. Rep. Ron Reynolds was formally accused of barratry—otherwise known as “ambulance chasing.”

4. In other news, hosting an ex-president in Texas is apparently pretty expensive. Here’s looking at you, Dubya.

Line of the Day:

“We cannot continue to fund the same inefficient, unsustainable long-term care system and expect a different result.” —Sen. Jane Nelson in yesterday’s debate over Medicaid service, as quoted by The Texas Tribune.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. HB 5, one of this session’s major testing-reform bills, hits the House floor.

2. Some pretty heavy bills will be heard in the Senate Education Committee today, including bills that would aim to prevent cheating scandals, and a handful of charter school bills.

3. SB 11, which would require drug tests for some welfare applicants, will be heard in Senate Health and Human Services.

Texas State Capitol in Austin, Tex.
Patrick Michels

The Lead:

The Senate passed its version of the budget last week, and soon it’ll be the House’s turn. The House Appropriations Committee voted out its version of the two-year state budget late last week, but not before allotting $1 billion more to public education than the Senate-approved budget. That means the House version would add a total of $2.5 billion to public school budgets. That’s still a long way from restoring the $5.4 billion lawmakers cut from schools last session, but it looks downright spendy compared to the Senate. Lawmakers have time to mull it all over, though. The full House isn’t scheduled to debate the budget until next week.

As the budget debate unfolds, committees continue to chug along. Our favorite today: Sen. Glenn Hegar (R-Katy) is presenting a bill in committee that would require the attorney general to file an injunction against any local gun control laws. So much for local control.

Weekend Headlines:

1. The Senate approved a bill last week that would set term limits for statewide officeholders. The Dallas Morning News explains that things look better for the bill than they have in the past, but the big test will now be in the House.

2. The Dallas City Plan Commission rejected drilling permits for natural gas producer Trinity East. Apparently the city manager had a secret side-deal with the company. The Observer’s Priscila Mosqueda writes that the City Council didn’t know about the deal and some members, along with environmentalists, are fighting the fracking permits.

3. Here we go again, another Bush enters Texas politics—and another George Bush at that. George P. Bush, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s son, is pursuing the office of Texas Land Commissioner. Bush is playing it safe and gave a safe speech at Friday’s Texas Legislative Conference, as The Texas Tribune reports.

Line of the Day:

“He might be the most outside-the-box and creative person I’ve met in higher education.” —Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) told The Texas Tribune about Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams is up before the Senate Nominations Committee.

2. Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) is presenting a bill to the Senate Open Government Committee that will clarify that certain emails between elected officials regarding official business should be public.

3. Katy Republican Sen. Glenn Hegar’s anti-gun control bill goes before the Senate Agriculture, Rural Affairs and Homeland Security Committee today.

4.  The House Appropriations subcommittee on Government Transparency and Reform is discussing the issue of misusing dedicated funds to certify the budget. A big example is the sporting goods tax, which doesn’t actually fund the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for which it’s intended.

Texas State Capitol in Austin, Tex.
Patrick Michels

The Lead:

The Senate floor was all polite “thank-yous” and pats on the back yesterday, leading up to the vote on the Senate’s version of the budget, which the Lege is required to pass each session. That is, until Sen. Wendy Davis spoke her mind. Last session’s budget cuts deprived public education of $5.4 billion. This session’s budget puts back just $1.5 billion. Davis said that wasn’t enough. She offered an amendment that would force the state to spend more on schools and then promptly withdrew it, as the Observer‘s Liz Farmer reports. Davis’ withdrawal of her amendment protected Republicans and some Democrats from taking a tough vote on funding public schools. The budget passed 29-2.

And now it’s the House’s turn to pass its version of the budget.

Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. The Public Utility Commission Sunset bill—HB 1600—passed through the House, but not without some verbal brawling.

2. Rep. Drew Springer’s ban on plastic bag bans got a late-night airing.

3. The Texas Tribune reports that CPRIT—the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas that’s been put under a moratorium while it undergoes investigation of potential grant fraud—got permission from House Speaker Straus, Lt. Gov. Dewhurst and Gov. Perry to move forward on grant negotiations that could bring more cancer researchers to Texas.

Line of the Day:

“We have a fiscal cliff here in Texas, it’s our highway funding.”—Sen. Tommy Williams during yesterday’s budget debate.

What We’re Watching Today:

1.The House Appropriations Committee will finalize the House’s budget version this morning.

2. More gun legislation is slated for the Homeland Security and Public Safety House Committee today. There’s more than a few interesting items on concealed handgun laws and background checks. And don’t forget about Dan Flynn’s HB 47 that would shorten the amount of training time it takes to obtain a concealed handgun license.

3. Dan Patrick’s bills on charter school expansion and gun classes for teachers are up for votes in the Senate Education Committee.