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Hot List: Day 139 of the Legislature

by Published on
Texas State Capitol in Austin, Tex.

The Lead:

It’s the penultimate day of the session, and lawmakers have much left to do. The House still must pass the budget and approve two supporting measures—HB 1025 and SJR 1—key to the budget deal.

Meanwhile yesterday’s developments weren’t kind to the cause of transparency in politics. As the Observer‘s Olivia Messer writes, Gov. Rick Perry’ vetoed a bill that would have required disclosure of dark money. The bill, SB 346, would have forced politically active nonprofits to make public who was donating the money for their political activities.

The veto wasn’t unexpected. The bill had been primarily aimed at Michael Quinn Sullivan and his tea party group Empower Texans, which in recent elections has been marshaling funds in its nonprofit corporation, a 501(c)(4), and using the money to attack Republicans they view as insufficiently conservative, including Speaker Joe Straus and members of his leadership team. By spending through its nonprofit (instead of its PAC), the group doesn’t have to disclose where the money comes from. This is often referred to as “dark money.” SB 346 would have changed that. But MQS, as he’s often called, is close to the governor’s office, so hence the veto.

Supporters of disclosure even saw their backup plan foiled. Anticipating a veto, they had attached the disclosure provisions in SB 346 to another bill—the measure reauthorizing the Texas Ethics Commission. But, as Quorum Report noted, a conference committee yesterday—at about the same time Perry was releasing his veto statement—stripped the disclosure language from the Ethics Commission bill. So much for that.

With one day left in the session, it looks likely that we’ll endure another campaign cycle with some political nonprofits influencing elections without disclosing their funders. Good times.

Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. The Senate passed SB 21, requiring drug tests for some applicants for unemployment benefits. The Statesman has more details. Democrats had managed to defeat a separate bill requiring drug tests for welfare applicants. Unemployed Texans weren’t so lucky. The bill now goes to the governor, who’s expected to sign it.

2. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports on efforts to save the Texas Railroad Commission and its oversight of oil and gas drilling. Rep. Dennis Bonnen, employing his well-known light touch, told the paper that the commission had opposed his sunset bill reauthorizing the commission. “I take that as a clear sign that they’re not interested in the agency continuing.” Ah, sarcasm, the grumpy man’s wit.

3.  Lawmakers reached a deal on the System Benefit Fund, which is supposed to help low-income families with their electricity bills, though the Lege has diverted the money to other purposes in recent sessions. The deal, endorsed by Rep. Sylvester Turner, will ensure that low-income families get help on their bills. Quorum Report has details.

Line of the Day:

“This is a sad day for integrity and transparency in Texas. Governor Perry’s veto of SB 346 legalizes money laundering in Texas elections. The Governor’s veto is ironic since money laundering is illegal in other endeavors.” —Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) in a statement.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. The clock. All substantive bills must pass by midnight. Day 140 is usually reserved for resolutions and correcting amendments fixing non-substantive mistakes. It requires super-majorities to do any legislating tomorrow. It’s possible, but not easy. So, today’s the day to get things done.

2. The budget. The Senate passed the budget yesterday. The House must pass SB 1, HB 1025 and SJR 1 or a special session is guaranteed.

2. A 30-day special may well happen anyway. Redistricting, the Railroad Commission sunset bill, tax cuts, and any number of other issues could lead the governor to call a special session. We’ve learned never to predict special sessions one way or the other. Gov. Perry has the sole authority to decide when and why to call the Lege into special session. That’s comforting, ain’t it?

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.