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Home | Tag Archives: Gov. Greg Abbott

Tag Archives: Gov. Greg Abbott

Gov. Greg Abbott signs $250 billion budget with no line-item vetoes

Gov. Greg Abbott signed the state’s roughly $250 billion budget Saturday, bringing a session-long effort to address the Legislature’s top priorities — school funding and property taxes — to a close.

A spokesman for Abbott confirmed that the governor signed the budget without issuing a single line-item veto, a mechanism that allows him to shrink the budget where he sees fit.

The 2020-21 budget, which state lawmakers approved in May, includes a significant boost in spending compared with two years ago. Lawmakers had billions of dollars more to spend thanks to a positive economic forecast and revised revenue estimates from oil and natural gas production taxes. Total spending is up 16% from the budget the Legislature approved in 2017.

Much of that extra money went to state leadership’s two two legislative priorities for 2019. Abbott has already approved a $11.6 billion school finance package that doled out $6.5 billion in new schools spending and $5.1 billion to buy down Texans’ property tax bills. In total, the state budget spends $94.5 billion on education, which includes funding for public schools and universities. Not including tax break funds, the Legislative Budget Board calculates that the education portion of the budget grew 10%.

Here’s a look at the bills that Abbott vetoed Saturday:

HB 51 — Relating to the creation and promulgation of certain standard forms for statewide use in criminal actions.

HB 70 — Relating to a strategic plan goal by the Department of Agriculture to prevent crop diseases and plant pests in this state.

HB 93 — Relating to the inclusion of a magistrate’s name on certain signed orders.

HB 109 — Relating to the operation of open-enrollment charter schools on Memorial Day.

HB 345 — Relating to the automatic issuance of a personal identification certificate to a person 60 years of age or older whose driver’s license has been surrendered or revoked.

HB 389 — Relating to the regulation of game rooms in certain Relating to a biennial report on stormwater infrastructure in this state.

HB 448 — Relating to the creation of an offense for failing to secure certain children in a rear-facing child passenger safety seat system.

HB 455 — Relating to policies on the recess period in public schools.

HB 463 — Relating to reciprocity agreements between certain air ambulance companies operating a subscription program.

HB 651 — Relating to the creation and operations of health care provider participation programs in counties not served by a hospital district or a public hospital.

HB 929 — Relating to the duties of a magistrate to inform an arrested person of consequences of a plea of guilty or nolo contendere.

HB 994 — Relating to appeals to justice courts of certain ad valorem tax determinations.

HB 1031 — Relating to the regulation of game rooms in certain counties.

HB 1053 — Relating to the administration, powers, and duties of certain navigation districts; authorizing the imposition of a tax.

HB 1059 — Relating to a biennial report on stormwater infrastructure in this state.

HB 1099 — Relating to peace officers commissioned by the State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners.

HB 1120 — Relating to the powers of certain county assistance districts.

HB 1168 — Relating to the offense of possessing a weapon in a secured area of an airport.

HB 1174 — Relating to the authority of certain county assistance districts to provide a grant or loan.

HB 1215 — Relating to the allocation of low income housing tax credits.

HB 1404 — Relating to the regulation of game rooms in certain counties.

HB 1742 — Relating to the mediation of the settlement of certain health benefit claims involving balance billing by out-of-network laboratories.

HB 1771 — Relating to a prohibition on prosecuting or referring to juvenile court certain persons for certain conduct constituting the offense of prostitution and to the provision of services to those persons.

HB 1806 — Relating to the use of water withdrawn from the Edwards Aquifer by certain entities.

HB 2111 — Relating to the period for which a school district’s participation in certain tax increment financing reinvestment zones may be taken into account in determining the total taxable value of property in the school district.

HB 2112 — Relating to salvage motor vehicles, including flood vehicles, and nonrepairable motor vehicles.

HB 2348 — Relating to the prohibition of certain employment discrimination regarding an employee who is a volunteer emergency responder.

HB 2475 — Relating to the indigent status of a person for purposes of the driver responsibility program.

HB 2481 — Relating to the creation and administration of certain specialty court programs; authorizing fees.

HB 2856 — Relating to restrictions under disaster remediation contracts; creating a criminal offense.

HB 3022 — Relating to emergency warning systems operated by municipalities and counties.

HB 3078 — Relating to the review of clemency applications from certain persons who were victims of human trafficking or family violence.

HB 3082 — Relating to investigating and prosecuting the criminal offense of operating an unmanned aircraft over or near certain facilities.

HB 3195 — Relating to juveniles committed to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department and the transition of students from alternative education programs to regular classrooms.

HB 3252 — Relating to the posting of certain notices in a primary election.

HB 3490 — Relating to the prosecution and punishment of the criminal offense of harassment; creating a criminal offense.

HB 3511 — Relating to the creation of the Commission on Texas Workforce of the Future.

HB 3648 — Relating to the powers and duties of the office of independent ombudsman for the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.

HB 3910 — Relating to the establishment of one or more supplemental county civil service commissions in certain counties.

HB 4703 — Relating to the creation of the Harris County Improvement District No. 28; providing authority to issue bonds; providing authority to impose assessments, fees, and taxes.

SB 390 — Relating to the creation of the Northeast Houston Redevelopment District; providing authority to issue bonds; providing authority to impose assessments or fees.

SB 550 — Relating to the eligibility of certain criminal defendants for an order of nondisclosure of criminal history record information.

SB 667 — Relating to probate and guardianship matters and certain procedures for persons who are incapacitated or have a mental illness.

SB 815 — Relating to the creation and preservation of certain records of criminal proceedings.

SB 1319 — Relating to certain taxes and to an annual report submitted to the comptroller concerning those taxes.

SB 1575 — Relating to governmental immunity for and adjudication of claims arising from a local governmental entity’s disaster recovery contract.

SB 1793 — Relating to purchasing and contracting by governmental entities; authorizing fees.

SB 1861 — Relating to certain public facilities financed, owned, and operated by a public facility corporation.

SB 2456 — Relating to the powers and duties of the Karis Municipal Management District of Tarrant County; changing the territory of the district; providing a civil penalty; providing authority to issue bonds.

Author:  RIANE ROLDAN – The Texas Tribune

Read related Tribune coverage

The 86th Legislature runs from Jan. 8 to May 27. From the state budget to health care to education policy — and the politics behind it all — we focus on what Texans need to know about the biennial legislative session.

MORE IN THIS SERIES 

Gov. Abbott signs several school safety bills in wake of shooting at Santa Fe High

Capping off a yearslong effort to prevent another school shooting like the Santa Fe High tragedy, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a series of bills into law Thursday that would, among other things, strengthen mental health initiatives available to children and allot money to school districts that can go toward “hardening” their campuses.

sweeping school safety measureSenate Bill 11, instructs school districts to implement multihazard emergency operation plans, requires certain training for school resource officers, ensures school district employees — including substitute teachers — are trained to respond to emergencies, and establishes threat assessment teams to help identify potentially dangerous students and determine the best ways to intervene before they become violent.

The bill is, in part, a product of Abbott convening lawmakers soon after last May’s shooting at Santa Fe High, which left 10 dead and another 13 wounded. Before signing the measure Thursday at the Texas Capitol, Abbott said that SB 11’s passage was made possible through the efforts of House and Senate lawmakers and fruitful discussions that came out of a series of roundtable discussions he hosted shortly after the shooting.

The legislation addresses “not only the tragedy that took place at Santa Fe,” Abbott said at Thursday, “but will do more than Texas has ever done to make schools safer places for our students, for our educators, for our parents and families.”

Republican state Sen. Larry Taylor and state Rep. Greg Bonnen — who both represent the Santa Fe school district — said they were pleased with lawmakers’ headway this session as it relates to school safety and mental health initiatives.

“It is unfortunate that the events such as what happened at Santa Fe occurred, but we are taking action to do everything that we can reasonably do,” Bonnen said.

The law, which Bonnen and Taylor authored, also resurrects this session’s largest mental health bill, and creates a Texas Mental Health Consortium aimed at bringing together psychiatric professionals from Texas medical schools and other health care providers to connect children to mental health services.

Aside from SB 11, Abbott signed a separate mental health bill Thursday by state Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, that increases mental health training for educators and other school professionals and improves students’ access to mental and behavioral health services.

“We are taking a very significant step forward,” Price said of his legislation. “We’re reducing the stigma that is associated with mental illness, and we’re equipping our counselors, administrators and educators throughout the state of Texas to identify children in crisis — again, all with parental consent.”

While both the mental health and omnibus school safety measures garnered bipartisan support in the House and Senate, their success came as a number of other school safety bills drew heavy criticism from Democrats and gun control advocates. The third bill Abbott signed into law Thursday abolishes the cap on how many trained school teachers and support staff — known as school marshals — can carry guns on public school campuses.

The signing of that bill disrupted the harmony between Texas Republicans and gun control proponents who, otherwise pleased with the bill signings, lamented that the marshal bill passed and another “red flag” law measure — which would have allowed courts to order the seizure of guns from people who are deemed an imminent threat — never gained traction at the Capitol.

“I think ultimately that’s going to be something we need,” said Ed Scruggs, vice chair for Texas Gun Sense. “In most cases there are signs. There are threats that are made or social media posts — something is occurring that’s tipping people off that we could have a problem here.”

Asked by reporters Thursday whether he supports “red flag” laws, Abbott said that “right now” such a measure wasn’t necessary in Texas — though he asked lawmakers to consider the idea shortly after the shooting. “We think the best approach is what we passed in the combination of these bills,” the governor said.

Still, Scruggs gave a thumbs-up to lawmakers for their progress on school safety bills and said that “overall, things were positive.”

Author: ALEX SAMUELS – The Texas Tribune

The 86th Legislature runs from Jan. 8 to May 27. From the state budget to health care to education policy — and the politics behind it all — we focus on what Texans need to know about the biennial legislative session.

MORE IN THIS SERIES 

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, other top leaders, propose raising the sales tax to provide property tax relief

Texas’ top three political leaders — Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen — threw their support Wednesday behind a proposal to increase the sales tax by one percentage point in order to lower property taxes across the state.

But that’s only if lawmakers agree to limit future local property tax increases.

The proposal would raise the state’s sales tax from 6.25% to 7.25%, generating billions of additional dollars annually for property tax relief, if voters approve a constitutional amendment. But the idea will be a hard sell to Democrats, since the sales tax is considered regressive, meaning lower-income Texans end up paying a larger percentage of their paychecks than higher-income Texans.

“Today we are introducing a sales tax proposal to buy down property tax rates for all Texas homeowners and businesses, once Senate Bill 2 or House Bill 2 is agreed to and passed by both Chambers. If the one-cent increase in the sales tax passes, it will result in billions of dollars in revenue to help drive down property taxes in the short and long term,” said a joint statement from the three Republicans.

Neither chamber has passed HB 2 or SB 2, which would require voter approval of property tax increases over 2.5%.

The House Ways and Means Committee was scheduled to take public testimony on the House’s sales tax swap proposal this week but delayed hearing the bills. Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, who authored House Joint Resolution 3 and House Bill 4621, is considering changing the legislation to use a fraction of the additional money generated by the sales tax for public schools — in order to get more Democrats on board.

The bills are intended to provide another revenue source to help significantly cut down local school property taxes, which make up more than half of the local property taxes levied in Texas.

If the Legislature approves the resolution, the constitutional amendment would go to voters to approve in November, and if voters sign on the tax rate change would apply in January 2020.

The idea is picking up solid but not unanimous support from conservatives. The Texas House Freedom Caucus, the hardline conservative faction of the House, said in a statement that it would back the idea if all the additional money went to property tax cuts, and if lawmakers also approve a 2.5% revenue cap on school districts. The caucus also wants to make sure the Legislature passes a bill requiring other local taxing units to get voter approval for property tax increases above 2.5%.

“There has to be a firm lid on local property taxes — including schools — that keeps the growth of property taxes from washing out the benefit you get over time,” said Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, a member of the caucus.

Since the tax swap would require a constitutional amendment on the upcoming November ballot, Huberty would need to convince 100 members — two-thirds of the lower chamber — to vote in favor of the resolution on the House floor. If all 83 Republicans vote yes, he’d also need 17 Democrats. Some Democratic opposition quickly emerged Wednesday.

“It’s a dangerous idea, one that increases taxes on working families to disproportionately provide tax cuts for corporations and the rich over everyday homeowners,” said state Rep. Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth, a member of the House Democratic Caucus.

Romero suggested Republicans instead back a bill he filed to double the exemption homeowners are entitled to on their home values for school taxes, from $25,000 to $50,000, which would give an average yearly tax cut of about $325.

Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, has filed Senate Joint Resolution 76 and Senate Bill 2441, which would also use an increase in the sales tax to lower school district tax rates. The Senate would need 21 votes to pass the resolution.

Raising sales taxes for public education appears deeply unpopular among voters, with 74% of Texans in a recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll reporting that the state Legislature should not consider increasing sales taxes to boost public education money. In fact, increasing the sales tax was slightly more unpopular than creating a state income tax, which 71% gave a thumbs down in the poll.

Arya Sundaram contributed reporting.

Read related Tribune coverage

Author: ALIYYA SWABYThe Texas Tribune

The 86th Legislature runs from Jan. 8 to May 27. From the state budget to health care to education policy — and the politics behind it all — we focus on what Texans need to know about the biennial legislative session.

MORE IN THIS SERIES 

With major policy differences emerging, state leaders continue to project unity

The three Republicans who lead Texas state government have made it clear: They know what the state’s top problems are and they’re working together to fix them now, during the brief window they get every two years. But resolutions on those consensus issues have — predictably — proved harder to settle on.

As the 140-day session marks its halfway point this week, must-do reforms to the state’s property tax and school finance systems remain only partially baked. A property tax bill originally filed with identical language in both chambers remains in purgatory, with approval from the Senate’s property tax committee but without a vote from the full body; in the House, it’s yet to advance past the panel.

And the chambers are perhaps further apart on the second priority issue, school finance. The House is charging ahead on its version, but an as-yet unfinished Senate proposal takes a different tack.

But even with the different approaches the Texas Senate and House have adopted on those two issues — and despite the pace that’s causing some at the Capitol to worry about getting it all done in time — Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, along with Gov. Greg Abbott, appear determined to keep the negotiations civil, at least in public. In the Legislature’s recent past, personal feuds stymied policy priorities; this year, even with public displays of cooperation, the challenges remain steep.

Of course, for some seasoned political observers, the current dynamic at the Capitol is to be expected — even when lawmakers agree on the focus, the devil is always in the details. Still, others wonder: In a session billed as one big campfire sing-along, what’s taking so long?

“Even though it sounds like we’re halfway through, it just kind of shifts into a second gear,” said Sen. Paul Bettencourt, the Houston Republican shepherding property tax reforms through the upper chamber. “The halfway point really isn’t the halfway point. It’s really when things start picking up.”

The chambers have hardly stalled. A House committee is expected to vote on its budget proposal Monday. That budget bill, House Bill 1, could then hit the floor of the lower chamber by the end of March — the earliest House members have debated the only piece of legislation that’s constitutionally required to pass in several years. The Senate, meanwhile, has already unanimously passed its supplemental budget, which would put roughly $6 billion toward leftover state expenses, such as Hurricane Harvey recovery, and work continues on its own budget proposal.

Still, the pace is notably more sluggish than the most recent legislative session, particularly in the Senate. By March 1, 2017, the upper chamber had passed all four of the governor’s legislative priorities — along with a controversial anti-“sanctuary cities” bill that would prove among the most divisive measures of the legislative year. This year, that same milestone came and went without even a public unveiling of the lieutenant governor’s priority bills. Those were announced a week later, in a Friday evening press release that included a host of priorities Patrick has made little mention of in recent months.

Patrick has said the upper chamber’s slower start this year is by design — a chance for new leadership in the House to keep pace — but skeptics wonder if some of his priority measures simply don’t have the support to move.

“We moved very fast in the Senate the last two sessions, pushing a lot of strong conservative legislation to the House because the former speaker had a different view on things,” Patrick told Lubbock radio host Chad Hasty last month. “Now, it’s not as important. … It’s more important that we try to work together. The House will lead on some issues; we’ll lead on some issues. It’s a different pace.”

Still, with that cooperation ongoing, inter-chamber policy differences continue to dog Republican leaders, particularly on school finance — an issue that state leaders have long been promising to fix. After proposed overhauls ended in stalemate during the 2017 legislative sessions, a group of legislators appointed by Abbott, Patrick and former House Speaker Joe Straus spent months studying ways to improve the system as part of a school finance commission.

That panel — including House Public Education Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston, and Senate Education Chairman Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood — released more than 30 recommendations aimed at addressing deep flaws in the state’s public education system. Now, the chambers have unveiled proposals that are at odds in significant ways.

Surrounded by dozens of his House colleagues, Huberty unveiled earlier this month a roughly 200-page bill that would put $9 billion toward public schools and property tax relief. Days later, amid a Friday evening filing deadline, his Senate counterpart, Taylor, filed an incomplete version of his own bill. Unlike the House proposal, the Senate bill would institute some type of outcomes-based funding for school districts, paying them more based on how well third graders perform academically. The House has proposed compressing property tax rates by 4 cents, meaning lower bills for homeowners; such a proposal doesn’t appear in the Senate version, at least in its current form.

Beyond that, the Senate’s school finance proposal is difficult to scrutinize, as it’s not finished. Bettencourt said he and Taylor are still working on the meat of the proposal, a pitch for how to overhaul school district property taxes, which constitute a significant chunk of homeowners’ property tax bills. Until that takes shape, the tax chairman added, he’s not whipping the Senate floor for a vote on the property tax bill he filed in January.

Perhaps the most notable break between the chambers is over teacher pay. All three state leaders have made clear that it’s a priority, but their approaches have differed: While Patrick has pushed heavily for a $5,000 across-the-board teacher pay raise — that measure passed the Senate unanimously — Bonnen has suggested that he would prefer to let school districts decide how to best use their education dollars. Those differences sharpened earlier this month, when the House unveiled its school finance bill that instead proposed tackling the issue by raising minimum salaries for educators and increasing health and pension benefits, among other things.

Asked about the Senate’s teacher raise proposal, Bonnen said, “I don’t know how you call a $5,000, across-the-board teacher pay raise” a “plan.”

“What we have is a plan,” Bonnen continued. “I think teachers are some of the smartest people in Texas, and they are going to figure out that the Texas House has a winning plan for the teachers and students in Texas.”

Through a spokesperson, Patrick acknowledged at the time that the two chambers “have taken different approaches” on the issue but emphasized that both remain focused on property tax and school finance reform.

Last session, such stark policy differences might have devolved into inter-chamber finger pointing. The 85th Legislature was defined by a showdown between Patrick and Straus, the former House speaker who Patrick blasted as uncooperative and insufficiently conservative. Amid a policy stalemate, Patrick ended the legislative year by slamming Straus in the most insulting Texas terms.

“Thank goodness Travis didn’t have the speaker at the Alamo,” Patrick said. “He might have been the first one over the wall.”

But this year, with a new speaker who those on the right and left are still hesitant to criticize, leaders have taken care to give off the impression that negotiations remain on the rails. At least publicly, the “Big Three” have maintained the unified front that kicked off the session with joint press conferences hailed as historic.

Bonnen, in an effort to keep negotiations running smoothly, told his top House lieutenants at a weekly lunch meeting last Monday to avoid publicly disparaging the upper chamber over differences on school finance. Bonnen’s message during that meeting, according to several people who heard the speaker’s comments, was clear: Let’s not poke the bear in the Senate.

Patrick, meanwhile, told conservative activists in North Texas later that day that his “number one goal this session” is to ensure Bonnen is re-elected as speaker in 2021.

“I love it,” Bonnen told Hasty, the Lubbock radio host, in February. “We will disagree at some point, but we’re not going to get on your radio show … and talk about those disagreements.”

In a separate interview with Hasty, Patrick had made much the same point: “If we disagree, we’re gonna disagree without being disagreeable,” he said.

But even if everyone’s playing nice, the thorny issues that have stymied lawmakers in sessions past aren’t getting easier to resolve. And the pressure is only mounting as they near the finish line — the official end, or “sine die,” to the session on May 27.

The pace beneath the Capitol dome has some insiders quietly questioning whether the 140-day session will be long enough, or whether the governor might need to call lawmakers back to Austin after May for additional work. For their part, state leaders remain confident the issues will be addressed this legislative year — no matter how long it takes.

“They have to be passed. If they have to be passed in a special [session], they have to be passed in a special,” Bettencourt said. “I’m optimistic that we won’t have to do that. But I also told my landlord I need the place.”

Authors: EMMA PLATOFF AND CASSANDRA POLLOCK The Texas Tribune

Gov. Greg Abbott names school finance, property tax reform emergency items

Gov. Greg Abbott, in his biennial State of the State address on Tuesday, stayed on message about education and taxes, continuing state leaders’ so-far unified focus on bread-and-butter policy reforms in a forum where he has in the past served up red meat.

Speaking in the Texas House to both chambers of the Legislature, Abbott named as emergency items the consensus priorities of school finance reform, teacher pay raises and property tax relief, the issues he and the state’s other top two Republican leaders have trumpeted almost single-mindedly in the months since the midterm elections.

Also topping the governor’s priority list: school safety, disaster response and mental health programs. Abbott’s designation of those priorities allows lawmakers to take up such measures sooner, lifting the usual constitutional limitation that prevents the Legislature from passing bills within the first 60 days of the session.

“Our mission begins with our students,” Abbott said as he began to lay out his legislative priorities. To improve lackluster student outcomes — only 40 percent of third graders reading at grade level by the end of their third grade year, he said; and less than 40 percent of students who took the ACT or SAT being prepared for college — “we must target education funding.”

“That starts with teachers in the classroom. … This session, we must pay our teachers more,” Abbott said, winning his first standing ovation of the speech.

“Rarely has Texas witnessed such a bipartisan and bicameral support for an issue this substantial this early in a session. … To keep this momentum going, I am declaring school finance reform and increasing teacher pay as emergency items,” the governor said to another standing ovation.

Abbott expressed support for a merit-based teacher pay system, praising Dallas ISD’s program as exemplary and asserting that “we must provide incentives to put effective teachers in the schools and classrooms where they are needed the most.”

Abbott pledged, as he did in his inaugural address last month, that this is the year lawmakers will finally unknot the entangled policy issues of school finance and property tax reform. Last week, Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, along with leaders on the issue from both chambers, laid out identical property tax reform bills that they said would help lift the burden of skyrocketing property taxes.

Abbott praised House and Senate leaders for “working together in unprecedented fashion.”

“We can no longer sit idly by while property owners are reduced to tenants of their own property with taxing authorities playing the role of landlord,” the governor said.

In the wake of tragedy last May at Santa Fe High School outside Houston, Abbott said “we must do all we can to make our schools safer.” He praised a proposal from Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound — filed as a priority bill Tuesday morning — that would create a broad-based mental health consortium. He made no mention of gun control measures.

Unlike in his first two state of the state addresses, Abbott did not deem ethics reform an emergency item. After tagging that issue with top priority status in 2015 and 2017, Abbott didn’t mention it this year. Nor did he raise any proposals related to abortion.

Another conspicuous absence from the speech was the voter rolls debacle that has dogged state leaders in recent weeks. Last month, Texas Secretary of State David Whitley flagged for citizenship review nearly 100,000 Texas voters; in the weeks since, the list has been revealed to be deeply flawed, and the state has been sued three times by civil rights groups.

Abbott was vocal about the list when it was first released, and at a press conference last week he stood behind the list as a “work [in progress,]” even as local officials reported that, in some cases, all the names on it were erroneously included. But he made no mention of the list, or of election security, in the high-profile address Tuesday.

And the governor of the nation’s largest border state made little mention of immigration reform beyond a promise to continue to “step up and fully fund our border security program” since “the federal government still has not fulfilled its responsibility.” In their initial budget proposals, both the Texas House and Texas Senate proposed continuing to spend about $800 million on border security over the next biennium.

Author: EMMA PLATOFF – The Texas Tribune

Gov. Abbott, Challenger Lupe Valdez Spar Over Arming Teachers, Harvey Recovery in Debate

Lupe Valdez, the Democratic nominee for governor, swung away at Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in their first and only debate Friday evening, while Abbott largely ignored her and defended his first term.

Valdez, the former Dallas County sheriff, hammered Abbott in response to nearly every question, accusing him of focusing on the wrong issues in his first term. Abbott often responded to the criticism obliquely and rarely mentioned his opponent.

There were nonetheless tense moments, such as when Valdez criticized Abbott for not calling a special session after Hurricane Harvey last year to tap the state’s savings account, known as the Rainy Day Fund.

“He calls a special session for bathrooms but does not call a special session when people are dying,” Valdez said, alluding to the “bathroom bill” that was among Abbott’s agenda items for a special session last summer. “The Rainy Day Fund is the biggest savings account in the United States. Governor, it rained!”

Abbott explained in response that the governor “has the authority to spend state money without having to call a special session to tap the Rainy Day Fund. That money, he said, will be repaid from the fund when the legislature meets for its next session in 2019.

Abbott made news on several fronts, starting with providing his clearest position yet on the historically inaccurate Confederate plaque at the Capitol that has drawn calls for removal by many Democrats and some Republicans. He said it was installed by a vote of the Legislature and thus lawmakers have a responsibility to take it down.

“Should they take it down because of a factual inaccuracy?” Abbott said. “Absolutely.”

Valdez was more forceful about removing the plaque, saying, “We just need to take care of it and get it done.”

Abbott also made clear that he will not be prioritizing a “bathroom bill” next session similar to the one that drew a business backlash last year, saying it is “not on my agenda” for 2019. However, he declined to say whether he would sign such a proposal if it made it to his desk, saying he “won’t sign hypothetical bills.”

Finally, Abbott expressed openness to reducing the penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana — 2 ounces or less — from a class B misdemeanor to a class C misdemeanor. “We agree on something,” Valdez subsequently declared.

Other moments showed stark differences between the two, particularly when it came to guns. Abbott reaffirmed his support for letting teachers be armed in the aftermath of the deadly shooting earlier this year at Santa Fe High School. Valdez, meanwhile, insisted “teachers should be teaching, not being armed and in defense.”

The two also split on red flag laws, which would allow courts to order the seizure or surrender of guns from people who are deemed an imminent threat by a judge. Abbott raised due process concerns about such legislation, while Valdez said she supports it and accused Abbott of having “confusion between gun ownership and gun violence.”

Valdez continued to confront Abbott when it came to immigration, particularly over the 2001 Texas DREAM Act, which gives in-state tuition to some undocumented immigrants. Valdez said she believes in a path to citizenship for young people brought to the country illegally as children — “and therefore we need to prepare them to be here and be educated.” Abbott called the law flawed and in need of fixing, claiming it has no way to ensure that recipients are working toward legal status while receiving tuition.

Valdez then charged Abbott with “blaming the students for a broken immigration system.” Given an opportunity to respond, the governor again declined to mix it up with her while emphasizing “our job first is to make sure we educate Texas students.”

Abbott did directly acknowledge Valdez at least once — after she expressed support for expanding Medicaid in Texas.

“She wants to make a deal with a federal government that’s $21 trillion in debt,” Abbott said. “She’s willing to write a blank check to the federal government that I will not write.”

“Lying again, lying again,” Valdez said as moderators moved on to the next question.

Abbott and Valdez do not have another debate planned between now and Election Day, when Libertarian Mark Tippetts is also on the ballot. Tippetts was not included in Friday’s debate and held a news conference before it to voice his objections.

The hourlong event was was hosted by the Nexstar Media Group and held at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library.

Like U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and his Democratic challenger, U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of El Paso, Abbott and Valdez had a back and forth over debates. Abbott made the first move in July, announcing he had accepted an invitation to the Nexstar debate. About a week later, Valdez said she was planning to participate in a separate debate that had been planned for Oct. 8 in Houston. But Abbott held firm on the Nexstar debate, and Valdez agreed to it last month while claiming victory in getting Telemundo on board as one of the sponsors.

Author: PATRICK SVITEK – The Texas Tribune

Gov. Greg Abbott has 40-point Plan for Improving School Safety. Here’s What it Would Do

Gov. Greg Abbott’s suggestions for limiting mass shooting deaths in Texas include a bevy of changes to state law, a culture shift in how law enforcement officers patrol their communities, increases in mental health practices at schools and help for educators who want to improve their abilities to remove potentially dangerous students from classrooms.

Here’s what you need to know about the 40-page “School and Firearm Safety Action Plan” that Abbott released in Dallas on Wednesday.

Limiting who can buy and keep guns is part of the plan, though in narrow ways

While Abbott’s plan doesn’t call for any new state statutes that directly limit who can buy guns, it does aim to close some loopholes in laws that already bar some people from purchasing or owning firearms. And it does call for lawmakers to strengthen existing criminal penalties for some people whose guns are used to injure or kill people.

“I can assure you I will never allow Second Amendment rights to be infringed, but I will always promote responsible gun ownership,” Abbott said Wednesday.

The governor wants courts to report felony convictions, mental health adjudications and protective orders that can block people from buying guns within 48 hours instead of 30 days.

In Texas, parents can be criminally prosecuted if they don’t safely store loaded guns that end up being used in certain crimes by children who are 16 years old and younger. Abbott wants to include 17-year-olds in that law, remove the provision that only allows for prosecution if the guns were loaded when children accessed them and increase the criminal penalty from a Class A misdemeanor to a third degree felony. The plan also calls for requiring gun owners to report when their firearms are lost or stolen.

Other possible gun laws are identified, but not explicitly recommended

The plan mentions a potential “red flag” law that would allow judges to temporarily take guns away from people deemed to be dangerous if there is legal due process. Abbott didn’t call for legislators to pass such a law — he instead wants to “encourage” lawmakers to “consider the merits” of adopting it. Outgoing House Speaker Joe Straus took him up on that late Wednesday and instructed a committee of the lower chamber to study such legal provisions.

“In the coming days, I will issue other interim charges designed to help prevent another school shooting,” Straus said in a prepared statement.

Abbott’s proposal also calls for encouraging voluntary use of gun locks. It mentions that Ohio requires dealers to also sell access prevention devices and that Maine requires dealers to demonstrate how to use trigger lock devices. The plan says “Texas could emulate these laws,” but does not list them as an explicit recommendation for lawmakers.

Campuses could see more cops and armed marshals

The safety action plan says that schools and local law enforcement agencies should work closer together to increase how often officers are at schools. That includes making campuses regular stops on officers’ patrols and giving them rooms inside schools to stop and file reports while on duty.

Abbott also wants to increase the number of school marshals legally allowed at each campus, streamline the 80-hour training course required to become a marshal and repeal the legal requirement that marshals safely store their firearms. And he’d like to see schools prioritize the hiring of retired police officers and military veterans as resource officers.

Gov. Greg Abbott says he may call lawmakers back to Austin for a special legislative session on school and gun safety -- but only if legislators reach consensus on what bills to pass first.
Gov. Greg Abbott says he may call lawmakers back to Austin for a special legislative session on school and gun safety — but only if legislators reach consensus on what bills to pass first.  John Jordan

There’s a high bar for a special session

A litany of the recommendations would require legislative action. But that may not begin until the next regular legislative session begins in January.

Abbott hasn’t ruled out calling a special session before then. But he attached a key caveat that didn’t apply to last year’s special session: Lawmakers must reach consensus on what bills they plan to pass before he’ll convene them in Austin.

“A special session is not a debating society,” he said Wednesday.

But some recommendations are already moving forward

Several school officials could spend the summer being trained in ways that Abbott hopes will prevent more deaths. The state is paying to train campus staffers who want to become school marshals. Educators and other school officials can also participate in free training for responding to active shooters, a workshop for emergency planning and courses on how to teach emergency incident response to others.

Two state agencies are also increasing the amount of mental health first aid training they provide this summer. And the Texas School Safety Center is partnering with SIGMA Threat Management Associates to train staffers on behavioral threat assessment, a technique used to identify potentially dangerous students and determine the best ways to intervene before they become violent.

The threshold for kicking kids out of class or school could get lower

A student at Bammel Middle School receives the talking piece and listens to her teacher give the prompt in the restorative circle on April 20, 2018.
A student at Bammel Middle School receives the talking piece and listens to her teacher give the prompt in the restorative circle on April 20, 2018.  Pu Ying Huang for The Texas Tribune
Abbott wants teachers to have the power to immediately place students in alternative classrooms if they threaten violence. He also wants lawmakers to expand the criminal offenses that allow school officials to expel or put a student in disciplinary classrooms. Current felonies that can prompt removal from regular classrooms include murder, kidnapping, sexual offenses, assaults and aggravated robbery. Abbott wants that list to include stalking, cruelty to animals, any weapons-related felony and any organized crime offense.

But when students are placed in alternative classrooms, Abbott’s plan recommends that officials use what’s called restorative practices to identify underlying mental health issues that influence behavior.

Some Texas schools are already using similar practices, which encourage students and teachers to talk through problems and build stronger bonds to prevent conflict and violence.

Increased mental and behavioral health programs are also a major pillar

A key tenet of the proposal relies on expanding use of behavioral health programs and increasing the number of mental health professionals at schools.

Abbott wants his office and lawmakers to identify $20 million in state funds to begin expanding a mental health screening program operated through the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. One major change proposed would create two classes of school counselors — one that focuses on academic issues like college acceptance and one that concentrates on students’ mental health.

“This plan puts the state on a pathway to ensure healthier families, safer schools and safer communities,” Abbott said Wednesday.

Students’ behavior — and social media posts — could get closer scrutiny

The Texas Department of Public Safety next month will launch an app called “iWatch Texas,” which allows Texans to report suspicious behavior or criminal activity statewide. The safety plan recommends increasing awareness of the app among teachers and students.

“Using a single, statewide reporting system, as opposed to a school-specific system, ensures that tips from different parts of the community are all integrated linking critical data,” the plan says.

Reported information is then supposed to be disseminated to relevant law enforcement agencies.

“For example, a student may report strange behavior and statements made by another student,” the report says. “Later that day, a citizen reports that the same student was attempting to purchase ammunition at a sporting goods store and became belligerent when refused. The iWatch system would link these separate incidents, and all future reports involving this student on or off campus would be monitored by law enforcement.”

Abbott’s plan also suggests linking that data to a proposed increase in existing social media monitoring programs.

“Several recent perpetrators of mass shootings had left clues as to their potential homicidal or suicidal intent on publicly accessible social media sites in the months before committing their crimes,” the plan says.

Some funding is already available, but it’s not clear yet how much more is needed

The safety action plan doesn’t detail how much it would cost to implement all of the suggestions. Some may not come to fruition. The price tag for others may depend on how many school districts buy in to voluntary proposals.

The plan says the state already has access to $70 million for some of the recommendations and that the Texas Education Agency is working with school districts on how to prioritize $62.1 million in federal funds for several of the suggestions. State agencies are also seeking federal funding for mental health first aid training.

The plan notes that “additional funds” could be “offered by the Legislature.” But when the legislature convenes for the 2019 regular session, lawmakers will be about $7.9 billion short of what they need to fund current programs, services and policies, according to a recent report. And in Texas, lawmakers are already largely criticized for decreasing the amount of state spending per student in recent years.

Disclosure: Texas Tech University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Author –  BRANDON FORMBY – The Texas Tribune

Less Than 2 Weeks After Santa Fe Shooting, Gov. Abbott to Announce School Safety Plan

Gov. Greg Abbott will announce a plan Wednesday to make Texas schools safer in the wake of the deadly Santa Fe shooting, according to his office.

Abbott is set to unveil the set of proposals during two events, one in the morning in Dallas and the other in the afternoon in San Marcos. They come less than two weeks after the shooting rampage at Santa Fe High School, which left 10 people dead.

Abbott’s plan will follow three school safety roundtables he held last week at the Capitol, soliciting input from victims, parents, teachers, lawmakers, law enforcement officials and other experts. Abbott tweeted Friday night that he would “soon announce many substantive details that can be implemented before the next school year begins.”

Abbott’s proposals are expected to fall into two categories: those that can be implemented immediately and those that the Legislature will have to consider the next time it convenes.

Lawmakers are not due to return to Austin until January, though Abbott has not ruled out calling a special session to bring them back earlier.

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Author: PATRICK SVITEK – The Texas Tribune

Lupe Valdez Sees Texas Gov. Greg Abbott as President Donald Trump’s “Puppet”

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Lupe Valdez, fresh off securing her party’s nomination in a runoff a week ago, is wasting little time tying the Republican incumbent, Greg Abbott, to President Donald Trump.

“He’s basically a puppet for the president,” Valdez, the former Dallas County sheriff, said in an interview Sunday, arguing Abbott is “trying to find favor” with Trump, particularly on issues related to the border. “He’s just following in Trump’s footsteps, and we’re strongly gonna go against that.”

Abbott, who is seeking a second term, has generally aligned himself with Trump on border policy, most recently heeding the president’s call to send hundreds of new National Guard troops to the area. Trump has repeatedly expressed his support for Abbott’s re-election bid, including last month during the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting in Dallas.

Still, Abbott has sought some distance from Trump in his re-election bid, particularly in his efforts to grow the 44 percent of the Hispanic vote he won in 2014. Last year, Abbott said he was confident Hispanic voters in Texas would see him and Trump as “completely independent” and warned Democrats that any money spent connecting him to Trump would be “like setting that money on fire and incinerating it.”

Like many Democrats, Valdez expressed deep skepticism that Abbott would get as large a share of the Hispanic vote in November, pointing to both Trump and arguably Abbott’s biggest legislative achievement in office: the state’s “sanctuary cities” ban, Senate Bill 4, which seeks to punish local officials who do not fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

“Look, he made some very good comments when he was running for office, but look what he did when he was in office,” Valdez said when asked about Abbott’s Hispanic outreach, citing SB 4. Democrats, she added, need to “get that message out and tell the folks that he talks a good game, but when it comes to action, he doesn’t do it.”

Valdez made the comments in an interview Sunday, five days after she captured her party’s nod for governor in a closer-than-expected runoff against Andrew White, the son of late Gov. Mark White. Before she even took the stage to accept the nomination, Abbott’s campaign released a video recounting how she said during the primary she would be open to raising taxes as governor but then backtracked on it the same day.

In the interview Sunday, Valdez did not rule out increasing taxes if elected.

“I don’t want to do anything that’ll hurt the working everyday Texan, and I’m certainly against” a state income tax, she said. Asked whether that meant she was specifically considering tax increases for wealthy Texans, she said she planned to review the tax code for loopholes and make sure everybody “pay their fair share.”

In addition to tying Abbott to Trump, Valdez was critical of the governor’s response to the Santa Fe High School shooting, which happened four days before the runoff and left 10 people dead. Abbott convened three school safety roundtables last week at the Capitol, and he tweeted Friday night he will “soon announce many substantive details that can be implemented before the next school year begins.”

“That’s good, but that’s not good enough,” Valdez said of Abbott’s roundtables, arguing the discussion should be much broader than school safety and include new gun regulations such as universal background checks.

Second Amendment rights have already flared up as an issue in the U.S. Senate race, where Republican incumbent Ted Cruz has pounced on Democratic challenger U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke‘s support for an assault weapons ban to paint him as a too liberal for gun-loving Texas. In the interview, Valdez stopped short of voicing support for the same ban but criticized assault weapons as “weapons of war” — “Who are you trying to go to war against?” she asked rhetorically — and said they do not have a place in “regular, everyday sports activities.”

In the interview, Valdez did not express any concern about wooing Republicans in the general election, voicing confidence that the issues she is emphasizing — health care and public education, for example — “go across both parties.” Even Republicans “who voted for Abbott are still having to struggle like many of the Democrats,” Valdez added.

Valdez’s campaign included a few high-profile setbacks in the primary, and she was followed for weeks by the question of whether she would debate White, which they ultimately did 11 days before the runoff. As for whether she is willing to spar with her November opponent, Valdez said she is game.

“Sure,” she said. “I don’t have any problem with debates. I’ve said from the very beginning, I don’t have any problem with that. I’ll debate him anytime.”

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Author:  PATRICK SVITEK – The Texas Tribune

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott Vows to Challenge Lupe Valdez on Border Issues

KINGWOOD — Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday vowed to challenge Democratic gubernatorial candidate Lupe Valdez over her views on border security and immigration, emphasizing an early contrast with the former Dallas County sheriff who has not yet secured her party’s nomination.

Abbott’s comments drew a full-throated response from Valdez, who suggested the Republican incumbent “would rather spend his time sowing division than talking about his failed leadership.”

Abbott offered his most extensive comments on Valdez’s candidacy yet after a Tea Party meeting here Monday night, telling The Texas Tribune that he and she “have been locked in a battle for an aspect of Texas ideology” that goes back to their clash three years ago over her department’s policy on compliance with federal immigration authorities. Like he did in a tweet earlier this month — when he broke his silence on Valdez’s campaign — Abbott treated her as the Democratic nominee Monday, despite the fact she is in a May 22 runoff against Andrew White, the son of late Gov. Mark White.

“It’s clear that she’s not only obviously the frontrunner and had the most votes in the initial go-around, but it’s our analysis that she’ll be the nominee,” Abbott said. “And so every time she comes out and starts talking about ways that are antagonistic to the Texas perspective on making sure that we ban sanctuary cities, secure our border, I’m going to challenge her on it.”

Valdez opposes the state’s ban on “sanctuary cities”  — known as Senate Bill 4, or SB 4 — that Abbott signed into law last year, looking to punish local officials who do not fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities. She has also been critical of his decision to heed the call of President Donald Trump and send hundreds of National Guard troops to the border earlier this month — criticismthat prompted Abbott’s April 4 tweet declaring her his November opponent.

“I think she embodies the Obama approach, which is more open borders, obviously not enforcing the ban on sanctuary cities,” Abbott said Monday. “We went through a big legislative process to make sure that Texas would pass a ban on sanctuary cities. If Lupe is elected, she will eviscerate that ban on sanctuary cities, and all these concerns that so many Texans have will be threatened.”

Valdez fired back in a statement Tuesday morning, saying it’s “back to business as usual with Greg Abbott spewing his fear-based open borders nonsense.”

“I’ve spent 42 years working in law enforcement, working to keep Americans safe, I know what smart security looks like and this isn’t it,” Valdez said. “Demonizing immigrants, and spreading fear and hatred is exactly the wrong approach.”

As for the “sanctuary cities” law, Valdez added, “You can bet this military veteran, former federal agent and four-term Sheriff of Dallas County is going to eviscerate SB 4.”

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Will Texas School Finance Panel tell Schools to do More with Less? Some Members Think it’s Predetermined

A state panel responsible for proposing improvements to Texas’ embattled public school finance system is facing criticism from an unexpected source: some of its own members, who say the panel’s hearings seem geared toward a predetermined outcome of making schools do more with their current funding.

Texas school districts have repeatedly sued the state over the past few decades, arguing it hasn’t provided enough money to ensure public school students an adequate education. During the 2017 session, lawmakers failed to make immediate changes to how the state allocates money to public schools — and instead agreed to create a 13-member commission to undertake a longer-term study.

That panel, which includes appointees from House Speaker Joe Straus, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Gov. Greg Abbott and the State Board of Education, has held four hearings since it was assembled in January. Its next hearing is scheduled for Monday.

In those hearings, some commission members argue, presentations by experts have been skewed toward making the case that schools do not necessarily need more money to produce better outcomes for students.

“There’s a steady stream of presenters … trying to convince us that there’s enough money in the system and that adding more will not show results — that districts are essentially spending the money incorrectly,” said State Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, one of four members appointed by Straus.

He said the commission has also heard from school leaders with innovative ideas, such as how to keep the best teachers at the most challenging schools and how to use full-day pre-K to get students at an academic baseline early in life.

“Those two things without question cannot be funded or sustained with the current funding levels we have,” Bernal said. “Even the districts that piloted it said they were about to run out of money.”

But the panel’s chair, Scott Brister, disagreed that the hearings were staged for any predetermined outcomes. He said the Texas Education Agency’s staff has worked to bring experts who can provide a framework for how school finance works and what an adequate education looks like.

“You’ve got to figure out what you would like the schools to look like before you figure out whether you need more money or less money or where that money’s going to come from,” said Brister, a former state Supreme Court justice. Appointed to the commission by Abbott, Brister was the sole justice to dissent in a 2005 lawsuit brought by school districts claiming the school finance system was inadequate and inefficient. The court ruled in favor of the districts and forced lawmakers to overhaul the funding system.

“I’m not interested in spending more money and getting no change. What’s the point of that?” Brister said this week. “The Constitution requires school districts to be free and efficient. … Surely it means you don’t waste money on stuff that doesn’t work and doesn’t make a difference. That’s one of our constitutional standards. We have to consider it.”

Over the past decade, the state has decreased its share of public education funding, allowing rising local property taxes to make up the difference. Currently, less than 40 percent of school funding comes from the state, while local property taxes pay for more than half. In 2011, lawmakers cut more than $5 billion from schools to close a budget deficit and never completely restored the money.

Texans will have their first, and potentially only, chance on Monday to publicly address the commission. Texas school leaders and public education advocates are expected to spend several hours, if not the whole day, testifying that they want the state to invest more money in public schools, instead of relying on local property tax revenue, and that they cannot educate students on the budget they have.

“Only after you get past that question [of adequate funding] do you get to talk about how to spend that funding,” said Monty Exter, a lobbyist at the Association of Texas Professional Educators, who plans to testify Monday. Exter said he sees three different groups on the commission: one that wants to increase funding to public schools, another that believes public schools are important but that increasing funding isn’t feasible, and a third that wants to defund public schools.

“My argument is that you haven’t funded us enough to get better outcomes,” said Nicole Conley Johnson, a member of the commission and chief financial officer of Austin ISD.

According to the TEA, Austin’s school district is expected to pay the state $545 million this school year to help subsidize poorer school districts, through a function of the school finance system nicknamed “Robin Hood.” Austin ISD has the highest Robin Hood payment in the state and has gone through several rounds of budget cuts over the last few years.

Johnson, who was appointed to the commission by Straus, agreed that the commission hearings seem to be skewed toward efficiency: “They want more for the same amount of resources.”

During the inaugural commission hearing in January, former Texas Supreme Court Justice Craig Enoch showed members a chart of 2011 student state test scores for school districts mapped against the amount of money those districts spent.

“There is a pattern here, but the pattern is not based on how much money is available,” he said. “In fact, the school district that performs the best is the school district that gets $2,000 less per student than the average funding.”

He suggested the state look into why certain school districts do better with less funding, and why others do worse with more. “Scholars and education experts are divided on the extent to which there is a demonstrable correlation between educational expenditures and the quality of education. The thing that matters is student outcomes,” based on test scores or high school graduation rates, he said.

Johnson and fellow commission member Doug Killian, the superintendent of Pflugerville ISD, pushed back on Enoch’s chart, pointing out the data was outdated and not comprehensive.

Chandra Villanueva, policy analyst at the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities, said the commission should be trying to ask what schools need to educate students, instead of asking what they can do with existing resources. “Let the Legislature decide if they want to raise taxes or shift other priorities in the budget,” she said. “I don’t think the [commission] should prematurely tie their hands.”

The commission will split into three subcommittees to brainstorm recommendations to the Legislature at the end of the year on where the state should get revenue to fund public schools, how it should overhaul existing formulas to allocate funding more equitably, and what it should expect its public school students to achieve. Each subcommittee will get to decide whether and how to include the public in its discussions, according to Brister.

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican chairing the panel’s revenue subcommittee, said it’s too early to say what those recommendations will look like.

“We’ve been drinking from the fire hose on public policy. I haven’t had any discussions with anybody yet to step back and get out of the line of fire and see where we are now. For me personally, I’m still in listening mode,” he said.

Disclosure: The Association of Texas Professional Educators and the Center for Public Policy Priorities have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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Author: ALIYYA SWABY – The Texas Tribune

In Harvey Response, Gov. Greg Abbott Finds a Hospitable Spotlight

Just three weeks ago, Gov. Greg Abbott was making the rounds in the media, faulting state House Republican leaders for the failure of half his agenda in a summer special session and planting the seeds for a bruising 2018 primary season.

Then Harvey hit.

The hurricane, which made landfall as a Category 4 storm on Aug. 25 near Corpus Christi, has cast a decisively new kind of spotlight on Abbott after a summer of political battles under the pink dome — that of Texas’ crisis-commander-in-chief. By all appearances, Abbott is embracing the role, using the trappings of his office to project the image of a governor in charge during a potentially unprecedented crisis — and winning positive reviews in the process.

That was on full display Thursday, when Abbott held a news conference at the state Capitol to unveil a the newly formed Governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas. Abbott named John Sharp, the chancellor of Texas A&M University, to lead the commission, elevating a longtime moderate Democrat to effectively serve as Texas’ Harvey recovery czar.

Speaking with reporters after the news conference, Sharp said he was “minding my own business” when Abbott called him roughly a week ago to discuss the new job.

Did Sharp have any hesitation in accepting the job, a likely years-long commitment?

“I don’t think he asked,” Sharp said of Abbott.

That no-nonsense assertiveness is among the reasons Abbott has won plaudits for his leading role in the Harvey response. There was an early dustup with Houston officials over whether the city should evacuate, but since then, Abbott’s received generally high marks for being measured, engaged and visible. 

“Abbott has performed flawlessly in the wake of what appears to be the worst natural disaster in U.S. history,” said Ray Sullivan, a former chief of staff to ex-Gov. Rick Perry. “It really is not as easy as it looks. He struck the exact right balance of being very visible, very much in command, and someone offering comfort and support for the victims of the storm.” 

Officials who have worked with Abbott in Harvey’s aftermath have been particularly struck by how hands-on the governor has been. State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, a Brenham Republican whose district was directly in Harvey’s path when it made landfall, recalled in an interview how she recently texted Abbott’s chief of staff and immediately got a call back — from the governor himself.

“He’s 24/7,” said Nim Kidd, Texas’ top emergency management official. “I like to think I’m a 24/7 guy. He’s up before I am, and I think he’s awake while I’m trying to get rest. He’s always present.”

Abbott’s been particularly visible at the State Operations Center, where he’s made near-daily appearances for briefings and news conferences since the storm struck. He even created a video offering words of encouragement to members of the night shift, which goes from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., Kidd said.

Abbott has also basked in praise from President Donald Trump, who has visited Texas twice since the storm struck — each time with Abbott by his side throughout the trip. Trump has taken to calling Abbott by his first name, and during the president’s trip to Houston on Saturday, he delivered a seemingly endless stream of compliments to Abbott.

“The cameras are blazing, I have to say it,” the optics-obsessed Trump said, addressing a crowd of volunteers at a Pearland church. “You have a great, great governor.”

Abbott’s time in the post-Harvey spotlight has not been without a few less flattering moments, though. His suggestion before the storm that Houstonians should consider evacuating riled some leaders there who had been urging residents to stay put. Abbott’s message “was a mistake, there’s no way around it,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, a fellow Republican, said at the time.

Then there were the explosions at a Crosby chemical plant following the storm, which have renewed a debate over safety and transparency in Texas’ petrochemical industry. In 2014, when Abbott was attorney general, he ruled that the state no longer has to give citizens data about dangerous chemical locations — the same kind of information the company that operates the Crosby plant declined to provide after the explosions began.

Some Democrats have pounced on Abbott in the wake of the explosions for the 2014 ruling, which was a big issue in the governor’s race that year. “Harvey Cleanup Hampered by Abbott’s Chemical Negligence,” read one news release issued Thursday by the Lone Star Project, a Democratic political research group.

Democrats have yet to find a serious candidate to run next year against Abbott, who is sitting on a massive $41 million war chest. Before Harvey, Abbott had made clear he planned to devote some of his time in the 2018 election cycle to helping legislative incumbents who were supportive of his special session agenda, potentially getting involved in primaries.

In Abbott’s world, the Harvey response has been an all-hands-on-deck effort, putting on hold what was expected to be a transition to campaign mode after the special session that ended in mid-August. Staffers who were thought to be stepping away from the office are sticking around for the time being to see through the storm response.

Abbott’s has shown little tolerance for some of the more politically charged issues that have arisen in Harvey’s wake. Asked at a news conference last week if he was worried politics would get in the way of Congress passing Harvey aid, Abbott offered a two-word response: “I don’t.” And on Thursday, Abbott swatted away a question from a reporter asking him to square his vocal aversion to some local regulations — a major theme of the special session — with the storm response in Houston.

“I think it’s pretty clear that tree ordinances don’t have anything to do with what happened” with Harvey, Abbott said at the news conference with Sharp.

To many, the launch of Sharp’s commission Thursday morning marked the beginning of a second, much longer stage of the Harvey recovery. In a way, the new chapter provides bigger challenges for a governor, Sullivan and others agreed, pointing to undertaking of a longer-term aid package in Congress, the short- and middle-term impact on the Texas economy and the growing impatience of displaced citizens. There are also thorny questions of whether the state’s largest city should restrict or temper development in some areas to reduce future flooding events.

Also on the horizon is increased debate over what kind of financial assistance the state can provide. The Legislature is not scheduled to meet again until 2019. Abbott has said the storm will not require his calling a special session but some lawmakers have raised the possibility of doing so so in order to tap some of the roughly $10 billion in the state’s savings account, officially called the Texas Economic Stabilization Fund but better known as the Rainy Day Fund.

On Tuesday, Abbott expressed openness to dipping into the Rainy Day Fund — only once the state completes an assessment of the storm’s impact and what other funding sources can be used to address it.

“As it concerns needing to tap into the ESF, the right approach is for us to take in all the information that we need to gather, to find out what the needs are, what needs are not yet satisfied, to what extent does the governor’s disaster fund provide resources to cover that and if we’re short, then consider the necessity to tap into the ESF,” Abbott told reporters while visiting Wharton to meet with local official about the Harvey response. “But you don’t dip into it without knowing exactly what your needs are, so we need to first determine what your needs are.”

Officials like Kolhorst say they have faith in Abbott to make the right decision when the time comes.

“For now I think it’s a wise decision to realize what the impact is, what the federal government is going to and not going to pay for,” Kolkhorst said. As for any final decisions, she added, “I’m going to leave that up to him.”

Disclosure: Texas A&M University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has chosen John Sharp, chancellor of Texas A&M University and a former longtime Democratic elected official, to lead the rebuilding effort in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. [Full story]
  • In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, an exploding chemical plant has highlighted how little the public knows about potential dangers from the oil and chemical industries. Critics say one reason for the darkness: tons of campaign money. [Full story]
  • The 38 Texans in Congress aim to take advantage of their delegation’s size and seniority to usher large amounts of federal aid and resources to the state following Hurricane Harvey. The Senate approved $15.25 billion in short-term relief Thursday. [Full story]

Author: PATRICK SVITEK – The Texas Tribune

Judge Temporarily Blocks Immigration Enforcement Law

A federal district judge on Wednesday ruled against the state of Texas and halted major provisions of a controversial state-based immigration enforcement law just days before it was scheduled to go into effect.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia granted a preliminary injunction of Senate Bill 4, one of Gov. Greg Abbott’s key legislative priorities that seeks to outlaw “sanctuary” entities, the common term for governments that don’t enforce federal immigration laws.

As passed, SB 4 allows local law enforcement officers to question the immigration status of people they detain or arrest and seeks to punish local government department heads and elected officials who don’t cooperate with federal immigration “detainers” — requests by agents to turn over immigrants subject to possible deportation. Punishment could come in the form of jail time and penalties that exceed $25,000.

Garcia halted the part of the bill that required jail officials to honor all detainers, and another that prohibits “a pattern or practice that ‘materially limits’ the enforcement of immigration laws.”

The detainer provision, he said, would violate the Fourth Amendment

Garcia did let stand one of the most controversial portions of the law — allowing police officers to question the immigration status of people they detain.

Because the inquiry into status isn’t a prolonged detention, he said, it wasn’t enjoined. But he explained that officers who make the inquiry are limited in what they can do with the information.

“If during a lawful detention or arrest an officer obtains information that a detained or arrested individual is undocumented he may not arrest the individual on this basis,” he said, adding that the officer is not required to ask the question. But he said if the officer feels like they should, they can only share the information.

“In sum, SB 4 gives local officers discretion to inquire and share information, but it does not provide them with discretion to act upon the information that they may obtain,” he wrote in a footnote to his 94-page ruling.

The bill was scheduled to go into effect Sept. 1, but opponents of the legislation, including the cities of Houston, Austin, San Antonio and El Cenizo, as well as Maverick and El Paso counties and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, argued the bill violates several provisions of the Constitution. Garcia’s decision means the bill is on hold until that issue is decided or until the preliminary injunction is appealed.

His decision is a temporary but significant blow to Abbott and other Republican backers of the bill who said it would help keep Texans safe from undocumented immigrants that have been arrested on criminal charges but released from custody by sheriffs or other elected officials who refuse to hold the alleged criminals for possible deportation.

Abbott on Wednesday night promised an immediate appeal.

“Today’s decision makes Texas’ communities less safe,” he said in a statement. “Because of this ruling, gang members and dangerous criminals, like those who have been released by the Travis County Sheriff, will be set free to prey upon our communities. U.S. Supreme Court precedent for laws similar to Texas’ law are firmly on our side. This decision will be appealed immediately and I am confident Texas’ law will be found constitutional and ultimately be upheld.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton added: “Texas has the sovereign authority and responsibility to protect the safety and welfare of its citizens. We’re confident SB 4 will ultimately be upheld as constitutional and lawful.”

In his ruling, Garcia also noted the injunction would serve the public and cited the overwhelming opposition to the bill during public testimony at the Capitol.

“The public interest in protecting constitutional rights, maintaining trust in local law enforcement and avoiding the heavy burdens that SB4 imposes on local entities will be served by enjoining these portions of SB4,” he said.

In another footnote, Garcia said that placing the law on hold would also benefit the state due to the sheer number of subsequent lawsuits that would likely follow if the legislation stood.

“If SB4 is implemented the state will begin spending public funds to enforce SB4 against local entities that will also spend public funds to defend themselves,” he said. “Both state and local entities will also need to expend public funds to defend against spin off litigation.”

Opponents of the law cheered the injunction.

“The court was right to strike down virtually all of this patently unconstitutional law. Senate Bill 4 would have led to rampant discrimination and made communities less safe,” said Terri Burke, the executive director of the ACLU of Texas. “That’s why police chiefs and mayors themselves were among its harshest critics — they recognized it would harm, not help, their communities.”

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • A federal judge on Wednesday dismissed the state of Texas’ lawsuit against Travis County and other defendants over the state’s new immigration enforcement law. [Full story]
  • Monday was the first day of what could be a lengthy legal battle over Senate Bill 4, which has been billed as the toughest state-based immigration bill in the country. [Full story]

Author:  JULIÁN AGUILAR – The Texas Tribune

State Senator Rodriguez Statement on Court Ruling that Blocks S.B. 4

Austin – Sen. José Rodríguez, Chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, released the following statement regarding the preliminary injunction granted by the federal court in the Western District of Texas finding that provisions of S.B. 4 are preempted by federal law and unconstitutional:

Senate Bill 4, also referred to as the “show me your papers” bill, the racial profiling Bill, and the sanctuary cities bill, is a signal to law enforcement throughout Texas that it is okay to ignore the orders and policies of your local police chiefs and Sheriffs and profile folks by asking anyone they detain if they have immigration papers. 

This bill not only undermines public safety, it raises serious constitutional and legal questions that I and my colleagues brought up during the numerous debates leading to the enactment of S.B. 4. Thankfully, today a federal judge found that Texas violated the U.S. Constitution — the latest in a long line of legislation aimed at minorities — and enjoined all provisions of S.B. 4 from going into effect on Friday.

This is only the first step to stopping this harmful, immoral, and illegal legislation. Law enforcement, civil rights leaders, students, municipal and county leaders, and residents will continue the fight until all the harmful provisions are fully repealed.   

Texas Guardsmen Mobilize in Support of Hurricane Harvey

AUSTIN – At the request of Gov. Greg Abbott, through the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM), approximately 700 members with the Texas Army and Air National Guards and Texas State Guard with the Texas Military Department have been activated and are pre-positioning throughout the state ahead of Hurricane Harvey and its anticipated landfall later this week.

“This is what we train for,” said Brig. Gen. Patrick M. Hamilton, Commander of Domestic Operations Task Force. “And we’re proud to stand beside our civilian partners, first responders and volunteers to serve the citizens of Texas.”

The Texas Military Department will continue to work with TDEM to project additional personnel and equipment requirements as needed based on the impact of Hurricane Harvey and the needs of the state. Hurricane Harvey is the first hurricane to make a direct landfall on the Texas coast since 2008.

“This is Texans helping Texans – neighbors helping neighbors,” Hamilton said. “While we don’t want to have to put our training to the test during a tragedy, our citizen-guardsmen remain prepared to help save lives and property, when called.”

Currently, UH-60 Blackhawk and UH-72 Lakota air crews remain prepositioned and on standby in Austin and San Antonio to assist with any emergency search and rescue, swift water rescues and/or emergency evacuations.

In addition, multiple Texas Army National ground transportation teams have been activated to support local and state agencies with any request for swift water rescues, high water ground transportation and personnel evacuation needs. They remain prepositioned in Victoria and College Station with other locations expected as the storm track becomes clearer.

Members of the Texas State Guard are mobilized to provide any local shelter operations and Electronic Tracking Network assistance in the affected counties.

Additional personnel remain on standby to respond to impacted areas as needed.

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