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Home | Tag Archives: texas house

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With conflicting budget estimates, will Texas teachers get the pay raises they anticipated?

When state lawmakers passed their landmark $11.6 billion school finance law in late May, school employees were eager to see how mandatory raises would affect their paychecks.

A month later, they’re scratching their heads, struggling to decipher complicated changes and conflicting financial estimates that might not net teachers as much money as they expected.

Before lawmakers voted nearly unanimously to approve House Bill 3, which drastically overhauled Texas’ outdated school funding system, they received estimates from the state on how much additional money each of their school districts would likely receive over the next two years. But the estimates came with a warning: They could change significantly once the calculations were performed using local data.

Ahead of the upcoming school year, districts are now redoing those calculations themselves — and some are coming up short. That could pose a problem for teachers, nurses, counselors and librarians, since under HB 3, school districts are supposed to use a portion of the new money on those employees’ raises and benefits. (School boards must approve their budgets by either a June 30 or an Aug. 31 deadline.)

Georgetown ISD, for example, is projecting $5.9 million in new money in the upcoming school year, much less than the $10.3 million state estimate. And it will shell out about $9 million in recapture payments, which the state takes from wealthier districts to subsidize poorer ones — not the $3.5 million the state estimated in May.

Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, a large suburban district in the Houston area, should’ve expected $30 million more in the upcoming school year, according to the state estimates. But school board members approved a budget in late June that projected just $14 million more, according to Karen Smith, the district’s chief financial officer.

To remain competitive as employers, both districts are going beyond the state’s requirement to use 30% of the new money to increase salaries and benefits. Georgetown ISD is including $3,000 raises for teachers, counselors, librarians and nurses with more than five years of experience. Cypress-Fairbanks ISD approved a budget millions of dollars in the red that includes $25.4 million in raises for classroom teachers, librarians, counselors and nurses and $10.8 million in raises for all other employees.

Teacher pay raises quickly became a bipartisan rallying cry during the 2019 legislative session that finished up in May. But instead of the statewide $5,000 raisemany teachers advocated for from the get-go, lawmakers approved a set of guidelines for salary bumps that would end up leaving the dollar amounts largely up to district leaders.

There is not yet an official statewide summary on what compensation packages look like across school districts, but eventually districts will be required to report that information to the Legislature. Meanwhile, the state has been providing guidance on how to interpret the new law through videos and PowerPoint presentations.

Without an across-the-board pay raise mandate from the state, teachers and other school employees have been looking left and right at neighboring school districts to judge how they’re going to fare. Some report having heard nothing from their school districts so far this summer, as they anxiously monitor the news from across the state.

Sunnyvale ISD Superintendent Doug Williams found that the state’s calculation for how much more his tiny school district would receive was pretty accurate: just under $600,000. But school districts in the vicinity, which include large, urban Dallas ISD, are getting millions more, meaning they’ll be required to offer bigger raises.

To stay competitive, Sunnyvale ISD’s school board approved larger pay raises than required by law, ranging from $1,800 for beginning teachers to $2,700 for the most experienced. “We have been blessed to be able to attract and retain great teachers,” Williams said. “We just want to make sure we are able to continue.”

In some school districts, local teachers’ unions and associations are butting heads with administrators as they advocate for higher raises and larger employer contributions to health insurance. After adopting a budget with 5% raises, Laredo ISD’s officials told frustrated teachers they are waiting for more guidance from the state before they consider raising salaries further.

In Houston ISD, the teachers union successfully threatened a no-confidence voteagainst the superintendent if trustees didn’t pass a budget with pay raises by later this month, arguing the delay would make them less competitive for hiring. After a contentious meeting, the board ultimately approved a deficit budget containing raises of 3.5% to 8%, depending on school employees’ experience levels. The budget also increased the minimum wage for school employees by $2 an hour.

For third grade writing teacher Huyenchau Vu, who watched the Legislature’s initial proposal for $5,000 raises dissolve, a 3.5% raise means a boost of less than $2,000 a year and less than $100 per paycheck. “It goes back into paying for everything, not necessarily into a savings account,” said Vu, who just finished teaching summer school at Houston ISD and will start her third year teaching in August.

She and her colleagues have been taking notes about the higher starting salaries and raises for Houston-area districts such as Aldine ISD and Alief ISD, but not necessarily because they’re trying to jump ship. While Vu would appreciate more money, she is also worried about the sustainability of the Legislature’s funding increase and is glad Houston ISD appears to be more “realistic” in its budgeting decisions than its neighbors.

“They’re paying their teachers a lot more knowing it’s just over the next two years that we’re receiving money from the state of Texas to put into these teacher salaries,” she said. “After that, no one’s sure what’s going to happen.”

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Author: ALIYYA SWABY – The Texas Tribune

Texas’ legislative leaders say they have a deal on school finance and property tax reform

Texas’ top three political leaders declared Thursday that the Legislature had reached agreements on its top three 2019 priorities: A two-year state budget, a comprehensive reform of school finance and legislation designed to slow the growth of rising property taxes.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott broke the news on the lawn of the Governor’s Mansion in Austin, just a few days before the Legislature is scheduled to gavel out. Both chambers will need to sign off on the three negotiated bills — House Bill 1, the proposed budget; Senate Bill 2, the property tax bill; and House Bill 3, the school finance bill — before the regular session ends Monday. Language for the compromised legislation, much of which was worked behind the scenes between lawmakers from the two chambers, had not yet been made public as of Thursday afternoon.

“We would not be here today, making the announcement we are about to make, without the tireless efforts of the members of the Texas House and Senate,” said Abbott, flanked by Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, and other House and Senate members who played key roles in negotiating the three pieces of legislation. Almost five months beforehand, as state lawmakers began tackling the issues before them, Abbott, Patrick and Bonnen had pledged from that same spot in front of the Governor’s Mansion to work together and deliver on meaningful school finance and property tax reform.

“Frankly, we’re more together than we’ve ever been,” Bonnen said. “The people of Texas are those who win.”

Thursday’s presser maintained the “kumbaya” theme that the three leaders have worked hard to set this session as the Legislature tackled reforms on some of the state’s most complicated and thorny policy issues. And, though the conference was light on policy specifics, Bonnen told reporters that the House would vote on the trio of updated legislation “as soon as it’s available.”

According to a flyer detailing some of the components of the compromise reached Wednesday night, the school finance bill will include funding for full-day pre-K and an increase in the base funding per student, which hasn’t changed in four years. It also pumps in $5.5 billion to lower school district taxes up to 13 cents per $100 valuation on average by 2021 — though leaders dodged questions Thursday on exactly how and where the extra money would come from.

The compromise bill, Bonnen said, would reduce recapture payments that wealthier districts pay to shore up poorer districts by $3.6 billion, about 47%. But he also said the state could not afford to completely eliminate recapture, also known as “Robin Hood,” because it would cost too much to completely reimburse school districts from state coffers alone.

The bill will include funding for districts that want to create a merit pay program, giving more to their higher-rated teachers. Though the House decided to nix this from its initial version of the bill, the Senate put it back in and apparently won the fight to keep it in.

Teachers associations and unions argued a merit pay program would open the door to school districts using the state standardized test to decide which teachers receive bonuses. The bill does not require districts to use that standardized test.

It also would include additional funding for “dynamic teacher compensation” tied to the base funding per student. But it was unclear exactly how much school districts could expect for these raises or how they would be required to allocate them for teachers, librarians, counselors, nurses and other school employees.

Bonnen, asked by a reporter after his remarks about how the two chambers had handled differences on the teacher pay issue, said he was going to “shut it all down right now” before diving into a football reference.

“We won the Super Bowl today,” he said, “and we’re not going to talk about whether the quarterback or the running back had more success in our win.”

Authors: CASSANDRA POLLOCK AND ALIYYA SWABY – 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 

Analysis: Welcome to Hell Week for the Texas Legislature

Here at the beginning of a week in which most bills in the Texas Legislature will die, the big priorities set out at the beginning, in January, are still alive: school finance, property tax reform, school safety and responses to Hurricane Harvey.

Lots of other proposals are fading fast.

As of Friday, just over 5% of the 7,324 bills filed in the House and Senate this session had made it all the way to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk. That tells you a bit about what will happen in the next few days. When this is over, when lawmakers have gaveled out on Memorial Day, that percentage will have jumped considerably. Two years ago, 18% of the filed bills made it to the governor. Four years ago, it was 21%. And in 2013, it was 24.4%.

But don’t just look at success; that won’t explain the dramatic tension of the next few days. Look instead at the overwhelming failure rate. Only about 1 bill in 5 — 1 in 4 in a good year — makes it out of a regular session alive. Everything else (that hasn’t found new life as an amendment to other legislation) meets its final end in the final week — when procedural deadlines form a bottleneck that most of the stampeding legislation doesn’t survive.

Those failures are not always surprising to the authors of bills, but failure is a tough ending when a legislator has worked for 20 weeks or more to make some changes in the state’s law books.

The big stuff is all right — at least for a minute — but other things you’ve probably heard or read about are in peril, a list that includes new laws that would allow people and businesses to discriminate when that’s based on “sincerely held religious beliefs”; limits on local residents’ ability to block oil and gas pipelines, power lines and other infrastructure projects; and loosening of the state’s current restrictions on medical marijuana. There’s also the Senate confirmation of Abbott’s Secretary of State appointee, David Whitley, who presided over the state’s botched search for noncitizens on the state’s rolls of registered voters and who’s out of a job if the Senate doesn’t confirm him before the session ends. Until Sunday night, it also included changes to election laws sought by Republican lawmakers; that bill didn’t get onto the House’s final calendar, but its provisions could find their way into other legislation before the session ends.

That’s a tiny sample of what’s in the air, and it’s changing fast. Some of the items on that list have already died once or twice, only to pop up in some other form. You’ll know in a week or so — after Memorial Day — what’s really dead and what really passed.

The Texas Legislature’s Doomsday Calendar — the dramatic name for the deadlines that stack up at the end of a regular legislative session — only has a few squares left.

Four of those are red-letter days:

  • Tuesday, May 21, the last day Senate bills can be considered for the first time in the House.
  • Wednesday, May 22, the last day the House can consider Senate bills on a local and consent calendar, which is for uncontested legislation, for the first time.
  • Friday, May 24, the last day the House can decide whether to accept or negotiate Senate changes to bills.
  • Sunday, May 26, the last day the House and Senate can vote on final versions of bills they’ve been negotiating.

The last day — the 140th — gets a Latin name, but not a red border. It’s sine die, the last day of the 86th Texas Legislature’s regular session.

Another clock starts then, marking the time between the end of the legislative session and Father’s Day — June 16 — the last day Abbott can veto legislation passed by the House and Senate.

That’s an important deadline, but it’s not one that legislators can control. Their ability to steer the state will ebb soon — but not just yet. For them, we’re entering make-or-break week.

Read related Tribune coverage

Author: ROSS RAMSEYThe 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 medical marijuana expansion gains steam in Senate, even after previous stonewalling

Even as the Senate stonewalls a handful of bills aimed at lessening criminal penalties for possession of marijuana, an upper chamber committee on Friday advanced legislation that aims to vastly expand who has access to medical cannabis in the state.

As filed, state Rep. Stephanie Klick’s House Bill 3703 would add multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and spasticity to the list of debilitating medical conditions that qualify for cannabis oil. The progress on her bill comes four years after Klick authored legislation that narrowly opened up the state to the sale of the medicine.

The bill requires approval by the full Senate chamber before it can return to the Texas House, where lawmakers have already approved two bills to drastically expand the Compassionate Use Program, which currently only allows the sale of cannabis oil to people with intractable epilepsy who meet certain requirements. But according to the Senate sponsor of the bill, the legislation is likely to pass the upper chamber — despite leadership once expressing aversion to relaxing the existing state program.

Several who testified before the Senate committee pleaded with the panel to advance the bill, sharing personal stories of how using cannabis oil has helped them treat a bevy of medical ailments. Lawmakers from both parties were receptive to the emotional testimony and, after more than an hour of discussion, voted unanimously to send the legislation to the full Senate.

When laying out the bill in front of the Senate committee Friday, state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, introduced a reworked version of the measure which further expanded which Texans have access to the medicine. In addition to the conditions already outlined by Klick, those with other illnesses like seizure disorders, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, terminal cancer and autism would also be eligible to obtain the medicine. The version of the bill Campbell laid out also eliminated what she called an “onerous requirement” that those wanting access to the medicine get the approval of two licensed neurologists.

Under Campbell’s version of the bill, the Texas Department on Public Safety would still have oversight of the Compassionate Use Program. Her revised bill also keeps intact the 0.5% cap on the amount of the psychoactive element in marijuana known as THC that medical cannabis products are legally allowed to contain.

“For many patients in the [Compassionate Use Program], participation in the program has been life altering,” Campbell said. “These people are our friends, our family, our neighbors. Members of our churches and in our communities have benefitted from this.”

Multiple Texans who either currently use the medicine, or felt they could benefit from access to it, spoke before the Senate committee.

“Before CBD, I had 200 seizures a day lasting 15 to 30 seconds,” said Brenham resident Julia Patterson. “It affected my grades and my social life. I couldn’t play sports. I couldn’t go to sleepovers. … After CBD oil, I’m now one year seizure free. I have my driver’s license and I’m finishing the school year with A’s.”

Still, there was a small show of opposition from a handful of parents and veterans who said they wished the legislation was more broad and included conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder.

State Sen. José Menéndez, a San Antonio Democrat who filed a medical expansion bill this legislative session that never got hearing, raised questions about the potential shortfalls of Klick’s bill.

“What happens if the Legislature does not address PTSD in this bill? What do you think is going to be the impact?” Menéndez asked Keith Crook, a retired Air Force veteran who testified on the bill.

“I’m going to bury more of my friends because this medicine saved my life,” Crook responded. “And there are people who don’t have the ability to access it or will be refused access to it because of a law.

“I’m a criminal. I use everyday. But I’m just trying to stay alive and do the right thing.”

Nearing the end of the testimony, Campbell implied that it would take more than one legislative session before Texas further expanded the number of conditions who qualify for the medicine in order to prevent “unintended consequences.”

“Anybody who watches a football game is going to root for their team and be happy when they at least get a first down,” Campbell said. “We would like to be able to include so many more diagnoses. This is more certainly a more expanded list and we will keep working with this.”

The bill still faces several more hurdles before it can be signed into law. The bill will need approval from the full Senate and then the House will have to accept the Senate’s changes — or both chambers will need to reconcile their differences on the bill’s language in conference committee.

Its chances of passage look sunny in the upper chamber, however, though Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick previously said he was “wary of the various medicinal use proposals that could become a vehicle for expanding access to this drug.” During Friday’s hearing, Campbell said Patrick “helped craft” the reworked version of the legislation. House Speaker Dennis Bonnen also told Spectrum News this week he thinks the Senate will take concepts from both medical cannabis bills passed by the House earlier — one from Klick and the other from Democratic state Rep. Eddie Lucio III of Brownsville — and “put them into one.”

Expanding the Compassionate Use Act has drawn the support of some politically powerful players since the last legislative session. In March, a new group lobbying for medical marijuana, Texans for Expanded Access to Medical Marijuana, emerged and has players with some serious clout in the Capitol — including Allen Blakemore, a top political consultant for Patrick.

The Republican Party of Texas also approved a plank last year asking the Legislature to “improve the 2015 Compassionate Use Act to allow doctors to determine the appropriate use of cannabis to certified patients.”

Read related Tribune coverage

Author: ALEX SAMUELSThe 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 House votes to raise legal smoking age to 21

The Texas House voted Tuesday to raise the legal smoking age from 18 to 21, except for military personnel.

Senate Bill 21 received preliminary approval from the lower chamber more than one month after the Senate approved a slightly different version of the legislation. The bill now awaits final approval in the House, which is usually a formality. Then the Senate will vote to either appoint a conference committee for the two chambers to iron out differences in the bill or accept the House’s changes and send the legislation to Gov. Greg Abbott.

Rep. John Zerwas, a physician who sponsored the legislation, said the measure would protect young adults who are”highly susceptible” to an addiction to tobacco products.

“The idea behind this bill is essentially to move that risk away from those people that are most susceptible to it,” said Zerwas, a Republican from Richmond.

If the bill becomes law, Texas would become the 14th state to raise the legal tobacco purchasing age to 21 and the third to include military exemptions. The stricter age restriction would apply to tobacco products such as cigarettes, as well as e-cigarette products.

State Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, added a floor amendment Tuesday that broadens the bill’s military exception to allow all members of the military over the age of 18 with a valid military ID to purchase tobacco. The bill previously only allowed members of the military on active duty with a valid ID.

Zerwas filed his own version of the bill earlier this year that did not include the exemption for military personnel. It passed unanimously out of the House Public Health Committee last month. With just two weeks left in the session, Zerwas opted to take up the Senate bill after the upper chamber approved it last month in a 20-11 vote.

State Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, also added an amendment that would preempt any changes to the Texas law by a local government, such as raising the minimum age.

A separate bill that would’ve placed a 10% sales tax on all e-cigarette and vapor products died in the House last week after state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, employed a parliamentary maneuver known as a point of order against the bill.

Texas’ moves on the tobacco age are in line with a national trend. Last month, representatives in both the U.S. House and Senate introduced legislation to raise the national purchase age for tobacco from 18 to 21. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the tobacco industry have also expressed support for such legislation, though Politico reported last month that anti-tobacco advocates fear the efforts are a “Trojan horse” to block other, more proven measures to reduce youth smoking such as flavor bans and higher taxes on tobacco products.

Read related Tribune coverage

Author: ELIZABETH BYRNEThe 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 House passes bill to prohibit telemarketers from falsifying caller ID

The Texas House gave an initial stamp of approval Wednesday to a bill that aims to prohibit telemarketers or businesses from falsifying their phone numbers.

The measure, House Bill 1992, would prohibit caller ID spoofing — when a caller tampers with information transmitted to people’s caller IDs to disguise their identity.

Under the proposal by Republican state Rep. Ben Leman of Anderson, telemarketers using a third-party source to make calls to the public must ensure the number that appears on people’s caller ID matches the number of the third party, or the number of the entity that has contracted with the third party.

“House Bill 1992 aims to prevent telemarketers from using predatory and annoying tactics by prohibiting them from replicating numbers and misrepresenting the origin of the call,” Leman told other representatives Wednesday.

The measure needs one more vote from the House before it can head to the Senate.

Federal law already mandates that telemarketers must transmit a telephone number and, when possible, a name that matches the telemarketer or business on caller ID. A spokesman from Leman’s office said the bill clarifies that the Texas attorney general may prosecute telemarketing companies that display misleading information on caller ID.

The bill tentatively passed the chamber on a voice vote. It still needs another vote from the House before it can be sent to the Senate for consideration.

The bill would not affect telemarketers who make their name and telephone numbers clear.

When laying his bill out in committee last month, Leman jokingly called his bill the “super duper anti-spoofer bill.”

“The most offensive part of spoofing is that when you go to block the number, they can call you again from one digit off the number they just called from,” Leman said at the time. “The end result is endless calls from telemarketers to your phone and an endless loop of you trying to block numbers.”

Read related Tribune coverage

Author:  ALEX SAMUELSThe Texas Tribune  |  Elizabeth Byrne contributed to this story.

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 House passes bill to vastly expand access to medical cannabis

The Texas House on Monday advanced a bill that would expand the list of debilitating conditions that allow Texans to legally use medical cannabis.

House Bill 1365 would add Alzheimer’s, Crohn’s disease, muscular dystrophy, post-traumatic stress disorder, autism and a bevy of other illnesses to an existing state program that currently applies only to people with intractable epilepsy who meet certain requirements.

The bill would also increase from three to 12 the number of dispensaries the Texas Department of Public Safety can authorize to begin growing and distributing the product and authorizes the implementation of cannabis testing facilities to analyze the content, safety and potency of medical cannabis.

After a relatively short debate, the lower chamber gave preliminary approval to Democratic state Rep. Eddie Lucio III’s bill in a 121-23 vote. But the legislation still faces major hurdles in the more conservative Texas Senate before it can become law.

“Today, I don’t just stand here as a member of this body but as a voice for thousands of people in this state that are too sick to function or that live in constant, debilitating pain,” Lucio, D-Brownsville, told other lawmakers.

The Compassionate Use Act, signed into law in 2015, legalized products containing high levels of CBD, a non-euphoric component of marijuana, and low levels of THC, the psychoactive element in marijuana, for Texans with intractable epilepsy whose symptoms have not responded to federally approved medication.

Patients also must be permanent state residents and get approval from two specialized neurologists listed on the Compassionate Use Registry of Texas. While Lucio’s bill strikes the residency requirement, state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, successfully tacked on an amendment Monday saying those wanting to try the medicine only needed approval of one neurologist from the registry and a second physician who only needs to be licensed in the state of Texas and have “adequate medical knowledge” in order to render a second opinion.

Lucio’s bill is one of two which aim to expand the scope of the narrow Compassionate Use Act that have gained traction this legislative session. Another measure by Fort Worth Republican Stephanie Klick, an author of the 2015 program, is scheduled to get debated by the Texas House later in the week.

Texas is one of several states where marijuana is still illegal, and the state remains reluctant to move forward on legislation that would legalize its recreational use. More than 30 states allow the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Texas is one of nearly a dozen states that only allow for “low THC, high CBD” products for medical situations in limited circumstances.

Lucio filed a similar medical expansion bill during the 2017 session. The measure attracted nearly 80 co-sponsors — including some of the chambers more hardline conservatives — but was never scheduled for a floor vote.

HB 1365 will still need a final stamp of approval in the House before it can head to the Senate for consideration.

But despite its overwhelming support the Texas House, it’s less clear where Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — who has already drawn a line in the sand on a bill to lessen the criminal penalties for Texans found with small amounts of marijuana — stands on expanding the existing state medical program.

Two medical expansion bills in the upper chamber by state Sens. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, and José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, have yet to get a committee hearing. And in a previous statement to The Texas Tribune, Patrick spokesperson Alejandro Garcia said the lieutenant governor “remains wary of the various medicinal use proposals that could become a vehicle for expanding access to this drug.”

To be clear, Lucio is aware of the pushback his bill might receive in the Senate.

“We’re in a good place right now, but the fight is far from over,” he said at a press conference Friday after learning his bill had been set for a floor debate. “If we get this through the House, we have a whole other battle in the Senate.”

But expanding the Compassionate Use Act has drawn the support of some politically powerful players since the last legislative session. In March, a new group lobbying for medical marijuana, Texans for Expanded Access to Medical Marijuana, dubbed TEAMM, emerged comprising players with some serious clout in the Capitol — including Allen Blakemore, a top political consultant for Patrick.

The Republican Party of Texas also approved a plank last year asking the Legislature to “improve the 2015 Compassionate Use Act to allow doctors to determine the appropriate use of cannabis to certified patients,” and according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, 26% of the state’s registered voters would legalize marijuana for only medical purposes.

“It’s not everyday I get to carry a comprehensive bill that is a platform issue for both the Democratic and Republican parties,” Lucio told The Texas Tribune Monday prior to debate on his bill. “That helps and it’s a great talking point when I can tell members there’s no political risk for them to support this bill.”

Several marijuana advocacy groups praised the passage of Lucio’s bill.

“Texans overwhelmingly support the expansion of medical cannabis, and it’s encouraging that lawmakers have championed bills that make safety the priority, emphasize the need for scientific research, insist on the importance of the doctor-patient relationship, and create high industry guardrails to ensure quality and consistency for patients,” said Brian Sweany, a member of TEAMM’s leadership.

Read related Tribune coverage

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 Senate approves school finance reform bill, but opts not to fund it with a sales tax hike

The Texas Senate on Monday approved a bill to massively overhaul public school finance, but did so while backing away from a proposal to use an increased sales tax to lower school district property taxes.

After an hours-long debate on dozens of proposed changes, the Senate voted 26-2 on House Bill 3, which under the version passed by the upper chamber would increase student funding, give teachers and librarians a $5,000 pay raise, fund full-day pre-K for low-income students, and lower tax bills.

The House and Senate will have to negotiate their significant differences over the bill — including how to offer teacher pay raises and property tax relief — in a conference committee before it can be signed into law.

“When you’re doing something as complex as this, there’s going to be something you don’t like,” said state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, the bill’s author, anticipating tension throughout the day’s debate.

Since school districts levy the majority of property taxes in Texas, many lawmakers have been seeking ways to help reduce those portions of Texans’ tax bills. But since the state is required to ensure school districts have enough money to educate students, any tax relief effort would have a significant cost — requiring the state to reimburse schools, if they’re unable to collect enough from local property taxes.

Taylor had originally included several provisions that would provide ongoing tax relief, paid for by an increase in the sales tax by one percentage point.

Republican leaders, including Gov. Greg Abbott, had thrown their support behind that sales tax swap, arguing it would help Texans who are currently being taxed out of their homes. But the proposal has serious detractors in lawmakers from both parties in both chambers who are opposed to a higher sales tax.

So Taylor stripped the increase from HB 3 and offloaded some of the more expensive property tax relief provisions in the bill. The bill no longer includes an expansion in the homestead exemption from school district taxes. It lowers property tax rates by 10 cents per $100 valuation, instead of 15 cents, saving the owner of a $250,000 home $250 instead of $375.

The legislation would still limit the growth in school districts’ revenue due to rising property values, a proposal pitched before session began by the governor. School districts that see their property values significantly increase would have their tax rates automatically reduced to keep tax revenue growth in line. That would now start next year, instead of in 2023.

“The bill before us today has no linkage to the sales tax and is not contingent upon a sales tax,” Taylor said.

Instead, the bill creates a separate “Tax Reduction and Excellence in Education Fund” to fund school district tax relief. State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said a working group came up with a plan to get $3 billion from several sources, including the severance tax on oil and gas extraction and an online sales tax.

“This does not increase any taxes of any kind,” he said.

The House and Senate have passed versions of HB 3 that are similar in some ways: Both would raise the base funding per student — a number that hasn’t budged in four years — and would provide about $780 million for free, full-day pre-K for eligible students.

Among the disagreements: how to make sure school employees get much-needed raises. The Senate has prioritized $5,000 pay raises for all full-time teachers and librarians. The House has directed districts to give all school employees about $1,388 in raises on average statewide and designated extra money for raises to be given at districts’ discretion.

Senate Democrats’ efforts to extend those $5,000 raises to full-time counselors and other employees failed along party lines Monday.

Also controversially for some, the Senate includes money providing bonuses to schools based on third-grade test scores and funding districts that want to provide merit pay for their top-rated teachers. Many teacher groups have opposed both, arguing it would put more emphasis on a flawed state standardized test.

State Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Burleson, failed to get an amendment to the bill approved that would strike tying any funding to third-grade test scores.

Teachers, parents and advocates following on social media had paid attention to Powell’s amendment, mobilizing in support through a Twitter hashtag “#NoSTAARonHB3.”

Taylor pointed out that the bill also allows school districts to use assessments other than the state’s STAAR standardized test, which has lately come under renewed scrutiny, with researchers and advocates arguing it doesn’t adequately measure students’ reading abilities. He approved an amendment requiring the state to pay for school districts to use those alternative tests, which he estimated would cost about $4 million.

Read related Tribune coverage

Author: ALIYYA SWABY – The Texas Tribune

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick says Senate won’t pass bill to lower penalties for marijuana

Less than 24 hours after the Texas House gave preliminary approval to a bill reducing the criminal penalties for Texans found to possess small amounts of marijuana, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick declared the measure dead in the Senate.

House Bill 63 by state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, would lower possession of 1 ounce or less from a Class B to a Class C misdemeanor, which is the same classification as a traffic ticket. Those found to possess 2 ounces or less or marijuana but more than 1 ounce would be charged with a Class B misdemeanor — punishable by a fine of up to $2,000, jail time or both.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, never gave Moody’s companion bill in the Senate a public hearing and previously told The Texas Observer he didn’t see an appetite for marijuana reform in the upper chamber.

In a tweet Tuesday, Patrick confirmed that to be the case.

“Criminal Justice Chair @Whitmire_John is right that #HB 63 is dead in the @TexasSenate,” Patrick tweeted Tuesday morning. “I join with those House Republicans who oppose this step toward legalization of marijuana.”

Patrick has spoken against bills to relax the state’s marijuana laws in the past. In a previous statement to The Texas Tribune, his spokesperson Alejandro Garcia said the lieutenant governor is “strongly opposed to weakening any laws against marijuana [and] remains wary of the various medicinal use proposals that could become a vehicle for expanding access to this drug.”

To make his bill more palatable to Gov. Greg Abbott — who previously opened the door to reducing the penalty for low-level possession from a Class B to a Class C misdemeanor — Moody on Monday introduced a watered-down version of his original bill.

As originally proposed by Moody, HB 63 would have replaced the criminal penalties for people caught with an ounce or less of marijuana and replaced it with a civil fine of up to $250. Only those fined more than three times would face misdemeanor criminal charges.

On the House floor Tuesday, just after the lower chamber gave final approval to his bill in a 103-42 vote, Moody said that Patrick was “the odd man out” and that “the ball is in his court.”

“Whatever you think about Colorado-style legalization, this isn’t it. It isn’t even a step toward it,” Moody told his colleagues on the House floor. “Mr. Patrick has been tweeting about this bill instead of giving us the courtesy of talking to us here in the House. … Let’s vote this across the hall so they can get to work on the House’s priorities, and so we can see how those priorities are respected as we consider Senate bills over here over the next few weeks.”

Despite Patrick’s comment, some advocates for marijuana reform said they still hoped to push the bill forward.

“Working through the legislative process means overcoming objection that some folks may have and working with them to find common ground,” said Heather Fazio, the director for Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy. “That’s exactly what we did in the House yesterday and what the vote yesterday demonstrates … and we intend to bring that spirit to the Texas Senate.”

Read related Tribune coverage

Author: ALEX SAMUELSThe 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 

Analysis: The Texas House is handcuffing property tax relief to education reforms

Texas isn’t going to get any action on property taxes without reforms to school finance, if the latest House maneuver is the barometer.

The House Ways and Means Committee approved its version of a Senate property tax bill Thursday, inserting an all-or-nothing clause that makes the tax bill contingent on approval of a related school finance measure.

Look, this isn’t rocket science. It’s easier to get lawmakers to restrain local property tax increases than it is to get them to make big changes to complicated school formulas and education policy. Education is a top concern of voters, but property taxes are a particular point of pain for them, and lawmakers want to do something about it.

That’s the only possible explanation for the big idea of the moment: a sales-tax-increase-for-property-tax-decrease swap proposed by the state’s top three Republican officeholders.

We’re in an odd spot when GOP headliners want a tax increase and one of them — Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — is even pushing for a $5,000 teacher pay raise straight out of the Democratic and teacher association playbook. Strange times.

But this stuff is hard, and the easy thing to do with less than five weeks remaining would be to pass some property tax restraints and push the education stuff into a special session — or into the next regular session in 2021.

Not gonna happen. First, because nobody will say out loud that it’s a good idea. And now, more firmly, because a House committee has handcuffed the property tax bill to the education bill.

It makes some policy sense. People who are complaining about property taxes are doing so, whether they know it or not, because of school taxes. School taxes are rising with property values. The state’s been taking advantage of that, using state-written formulas to lower state spending as local property taxes rise. The comptroller has said the state currently covers only 36% of public school funding, while local property taxes cover 64%. Balancing that would take pressure off of property taxes but require the state to put up the money.

The property tax legislation tagged by the House doesn’t actually lower property taxes. It requires voter approval when city, county or emergency district property tax revenues rise by 3.5% or more, or when school property tax revenues rise by 2% or more.

It makes a lot of political sense, too, subverting anyone who had the idea of limiting property taxes and leaving school finance for later.

Author: ROSS RAMSEYThe 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 

Editor’s note: If you’d like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey’s column, click here.

In the Texas House, property tax legislation is being handled with a different speed — and tone

City mayors extended an olive branch. Witnesses spoke uninterrupted. A House Democrat said he appreciated the “frame and tone” set by a GOP chair.

When the Legislature’s priority property tax reform bill was rolled out by a House committee Wednesday, it was met with a tenor and pace that differed markedly from the more contentious proceedings in the Senate.

Absent the quick tempo and heated exchanges that marked the upper chamber’s committee hearings on the legislation, a panel of state representatives deliberated its bill for nearly 12 hours, taking expert and public comments without proposing amendments. The proceedings were the latest sign of the lower chamber’s approach to the priority property tax package — which the chair of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee said they would “fully understand before we get into the debate and discussion.”

That, he said, “is how we have discussions in the Texas House.”

During the Senate committee’s proceedings, public testimony was largely limited to two minutes — a strategy designed to allow everyone who wished to testify the opportunity to do so, according to the office of state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, chair of the committee.

As the Ways and Means Committee meeting wore on Wednesday, some witnesses complained that homeowners hadn’t been called until well into the evening and that many had departed before their turn came.

But the thorough approach was set early in the day by Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, the committee chair who began proceedings on the reform bill by saying he hoped the 11-member panel would hear comments and “talk about ideas that can make the bill better in either direction.”

After, “the committee can collaborate and can work and try to come up with a bill that is right,” he said. “[We’re] not just trying to get something across the finish line as quick as we can.”

The Senate tax committee passed its version of the property tax reform bill, with amendments, earlier this month. It has not yet been debated by the full upper chamber. As drafted, both versions of the legislation would require that cities, counties and special taxing districts receive voter approval before increasing property tax revenues 2.5 percent more than the previous year. Revenue from new developments would not count toward the 2.5 percent threshold.

Burrows seemed open to other rates Wednesday, but he explained why he filed the bill at 2.5 percent. An election trigger could be tied to a price or wage index — or based on “simple math,” Burrows said.

“If property taxes continue to go up year after year at 8 percent, they will double in nine years,” he said. “At 4 percent, it takes now 17 years to double, and 35 years to quadruple. And at 2.5 percent, it takes 28 years for somebody’s property taxes to double, and 56 years for them to quadruple.”

Currently, voters can petition to have an election if revenue growth surpasses 8 percent, a figure supporters of the legislation say was set during a period of high inflation in the 1980s.

The reforms are a big-ticket item for state leaders. Though they are unlikely to reduce individual tax bills — a concern for residents who say their incomes have not kept pace with rising property values — they could tamp down the rate of a jurisdiction’s property tax revenue growth.

The legislation also proposes a battery of modifications to how properties are appraised, with an aim of making the process more transparent and less subjective.

Still, as Burrows noted Wednesday, the 2.5 percent election trigger has “captured most of the headlines,” and several witnesses were asked Wednesday to help identify a more palatable number.

“Do you think 8 percent is where it ought to be, or do you think it should be lower?” Burrows asked Amarillo Mayor Ginger Nelson.

“I think we’re engaging in that conversation with you guys,” she responded, listing a number of factors she thought should be taken into account.

Two dozen big-city mayors proposed using a formula to tailor the trigger to each jurisdiction, in a letter to the committee chair dated Feb. 26. Six mayors testified on behalf of the group, stressing they were remarking “on” the bill — a neutral position — not against it.

Bettencourt noted a new attitude coming from mayors Thursday.

“The Mayors came in with solutions this time because they just said NO last time,” he said. “That’s progress.”

Despite the generally placid tone Wednesday, the hearing exposed some of the party-line fissures that have animated the property tax reform effort so far. Mayors were questioned by GOP lawmakers about why having an election trigger would force them to cut their budgets. Municipal leaders said population growth and unfunded mandates were tying their hands. And many homeowners, who supported a trigger at 2.5 percent, spoke of their difficulty paying rising tax bills on top of other expenses.

Near 11 p.m., the Speaker of the House, Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, walked through the hearing room to greet lawmakers and watch the proceedings.

In 2017, property tax proposals left the House and Senate at an impasse during both the regular and special sessions. The lower chamber proposed that an election be triggered at 6 percent revenue growth, while the upper chamber pushed for 4 percent.

In a move Bettencourt has jokingly called a “compromise,” Gov. Greg Abbott pitched a 2.5 percent rate in advance of the 2019 session. A poll from Quinnipiac University, released this week, found voters largely supported the idea of requiring local governments to get voter approval before “increasing property taxes” more than 2.5 percent.

Still, lawmakers’ public support for the 2.5 percent threshold has appeared to wane. Republicans have cast the figure as a starting point. Prominent Democrats on the committee — state Reps. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, and Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin — have said the figure is a non-starter.

“For the number now to shift downward by a point and a half to 2.5,” Martinez Fischer said, “my natural reaction and response to that is, ‘Well, my 6 becomes 7.5.’”

And a major component of the reform package has yet to be unveiled. The bulk of property taxes statewide are levied by school districts, with state dollars flowing in after local revenue has been accounted for. The property tax reform proposal has inserted placeholder language for schools, as lawmakers’ wait on sprawling public education bills to be filed.

Martinez Fischer, who sits on the Ways and Means Committee, said of the lower chamber’s approach: “we don’t care about getting it done first; we care about getting it done right.”

“Everybody seems to want to live this policy through the lens of 2017,” he said. “I take the mayors at their word that they’re going to work hard, they’re going to come up with a collective solution. I take the chairman at his word that he wants our input and is hoping to make this bill better.”

Author: SHANNON NAJMABADI – The Texas Tribune

Rep. Moody Named Speaker Pro Tem, Rep. González Receives Committee Assignments

On Wednesday, January 23rd, Representative Mary González and Representative Joe Moody received their assignments for the  86th Legislative Session.

Moody was appointed speaker pro tempore, the number two job in the Texas House of Representatives; González has been appointed Vice Chair of the Local & Consent Calendars Committee and to the House Committee on Public Education.

“School finance is, without a doubt, the biggest challenge facing our state,” Representative González said. “With my appointments to both the Public Education and Appropriations Committees, I look forward to driving the discussion of equitably funding our schools, and making sure that all kids, regardless of income, ability, race, or geographic location, receive a high quality education.”

The House Committee on Appropriations presides over and creates the state’s budget for each biennium, and addresses any issues or legislation relating to the allocation of funds, while the House Committee on Local & Consent Calendars supervises the placement of local legislation onto a local and consent calendar, one of the schedules for representatives to discuss bills.

“I’m humbled by Speaker Bonnen’s confidence in me,” said Moody. “He’s left big shoes to fill, but I’m excited for the opportunity to serve El Paso and Texas itself in this new role. My number one priority will be facilitating a productive session built on respectful, bipartisan relationships and a shared commitment to the people of Texas; I know that, working together, we can do amazing work for the communities we serve.”

The speaker pro tempore assumes the duties of speaker in the speaker’s absence and assists in the administration of the House at the speaker’s direction. Traditionally, that includes the duty of presiding over consideration of “local and consent” bills–those thought to be uncontroversial or that have an impact on specific areas of Texas rather than the whole state.

Moody will also serve on an array of committees this session, including the Committee on Calendars (as vice chair), the Committee on Business and Industry, the Committee on Redistricting, and the Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence.

González retains her position on the powerful House Committee on Appropriations.

Texas Senate Proposes $3.7 Billion for Mandated Teacher Raises

Leaders of the Texas Senate are proposing giving schools $3.7 billion to provide $5,000 pay raises to all full-time classroom teachers — on the heels of a House budget proposal that includes $7 billion more for public education.

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, filed Senate Bill 3 Tuesday morning, which would mandate that schools use the billions in additional funding specifically for teacher pay raises. Speaking at his inauguration Tuesday morning, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, lauded the proposal as one of his main priorities this legislative session and said the funding would be permanent.

Bills with low numbers in either chamber are reserved for those leaders’ top priorities. Patrick, a Republican, hinted at this proposal last week during a speech at a Texas Realtors event. “I want to give an across the board— I talked about in my campaign—a $10,000 raise on average over time. I think we can make a big step forward this year in doing that,” he said.”We have to lift the boat for all teachers up.”

Patrick’s first attempt at raising teacher pay during the 2017 special session was unsuccessful and unpopular with many teachers, since it included no additional state funding. It would have required school districts to “reprioritize” existing funding to give teachers small bonuses up to $1,000. At the time, he called on districts to be “be better about how they spend the money.”

Nelson’s proposal appears to build a new formula into the school finance system that would distribute state funding to schools based on the number of full-time classroom teachers they employ, and require they use that money for raises over the previous year.

Gov. Greg Abbott and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, both Republicans, have also been vocal about the importance of keeping teachers in classrooms, mainly through merit pay programs that would provide stipends to the most effective teachers.

“This session, as the lieutenant governor has already taken a step to do, we must act to pay our best teachers more. We must reward teachers and school districts that achieve results,” Abbott said at Tuesday’s inauguration.

Author: ALIYYA SWABY – The Texas Tribune

Analysis: Changing the Boys’ Club Culture at the Texas Capitol

Hey, Texas legislators, how about setting an example once in a while?

It could be something simple, like getting rid of — or perhaps, at least, editing — that historically false Confederate war marker in the extension to the Texas Capitol. It might’ve been easier to do it 24 years ago, when the extension opened and the plaque in question was moved to its new location. But there’s always time to correct a mistake.

Or something else that’s well-identified but slippery and harder to achieve, like significant reform to the ethics laws for state officeholders — reforms that have been on the emergency-items-not-addressed lists for Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Legislature for four years now. Self-regulation is always hard, especially when it gets tangled up with the kind of score-settling that starts in political campaigns and takes hold when the winners take office.

Or maybe, legislators could set their sights on one of the oldest and least acknowledged issues in this and many other governments (not to mention the movie and media industries, to name two) — that of sexual predators with official titles preying on staffers, lobbyists and, once in a while, each other.

That cultural cancer — the subject of a cringeworthy story by The Texas Tribune’s Alexa Ura, Morgan Smith, Jolie McCullough and Edgar Walters — is only partly about the sexual harassment that plagues the Legislature and the people around it; it’s also about the failure of the system to give the victims meaningful help or recourse.

That failure is something the leaders in the executive and legislative branches can repair, if they want to.

The great state of Texas has had 5,415 men in the Legislature and only 155 women. This is and always has been a boys club, often marked by misbehavior. But sex and sexual harassment aren’t the same thing. The first involves mutual consent; the second doesn’t. And that’s where the leaders can do some good, if they are so inclined — they can make a distinction in their rules and laws, and make it stick. As it stands, women in the Capitol can’t do much to stop harassment; reporting it carries career and professional risks and little assurance that anything will happen to the predators who assault them. Too much of the time, it’s a take-it-or-quit culture.

It’s not easy. A woman on the House side could bring a complaint to the House Administration Committee, but there’s not really a procedure there to protect her and her job if she does. She’s going to run into Charlie Geren, the Fort Worth Republican who heads that committee. Here’s what he told the Tribune when asked about complaints: “There’s nothing to talk about because we don’t have any. I don’t deal in ifs. When there’s one I’ll handle it. And that’s it.”

If he’s right, the Texas House of Representatives might be the safest workplace for women in the United States, which is lucky, since you can’t sue the state without the state’s permission.

Geren’s in no position to police this, anyway. Each of the 183 representatives and senators, their staffers and the lobbyists who haunt the halls is tied together in a system of trades, favors, debates and relationships that conflict with their ability to settle disputes over sexual harassment. Geren has the same conflict of interest everyone else does. He’s got bills to pass — an imperative that competes with the need to police fellow lawmakers.

This legislator needs that legislator to pass a bill, to get out of the way, to do something or not do something; horning in on that touchy business with something as volatile as a sexual harassment claim messes with the work they’re hired to do.

That’s not an excuse for the way they act; it’s a description of the conflict of interest that prevents even trustworthy and moral legislators from protecting the victims of the Capitol’s worst occupants. And there are already calls to action coming from state officials who want to make it a safer place for women.

Anyone working in the Texas Capitol — whether on their own account, on the state payroll or on behalf of someone who can afford a lobbyist — ought to be safe from sexual predators and protected when they report harassment. That’s not how it is right now: In practice, the predators are free to do what they’ve always done.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Interviews with more than two dozen current and former lawmakers and legislative aides indicate sexual harassment regularly goes unchecked at the Texas Capitol. And sexual harassment policies rely on officials with little incentive or authority to enforce them, particularly in cases of harassment by lawmakers. [Full story]
  • Lawmakers in the Texas House and Senate called for a review of sexual harassment policies Tuesday following a Texas Tribune story detailing how current procedures offered little protection for victims. [Full story]
  • Baylor University’s accreditation appears to be safe after a special committee investigating the school found that it was in compliance on a number of key issues. [Full story]

Author:  ROSS RAMSEY – The Texas Tribune

Analysis: A Rules Fight, Prelude to a Texas Speaker’s Race

Suppose you were the most conservative member of the Texas House — or the most liberal.

You are in real danger of being ignored when it comes to picking the next speaker of the House — the man (probably) or woman (it would be a first) who will replace Joe Straus, R-San Antonio.

Republicans have a strong majority right now, with 95 of the House’s 150 seats. They’re likely to hold a substantial majority next year, given the conservative leanings of Texas voters and the biases built into the political maps from which House members are elected.

And they’re talking about cutting the Democrats out of the election for the next speaker — not a new idea, or an enforceable one, but one that would potentially move the already conservative leadership of the Texas House to the right.

That phrase — “already conservative” — is at the center of the debate. This is the House, after all, that stopped some of the legislation sent over by the decidedly conservative Senate, giving some evidence to those who think the House isn’t conservative enough. It’s also the House that passed one of the most stringent immigration laws in the country — the so-called “show us your papers” bill that would allow police to check the immigration status of anyone they pull over for traffic or other stops. That’s the evidence for those who think the House, while not as far to the right as the Senate, is well to the right of its predecessors.

Now that House, however you’d like to classify it, is deciding what it wants to be after the 2018 elections. Even when the House and Senate are politically in tune, they are institutionally allergic to one another.

Even so, some of the House’s most conservative members would like to move in the Senate’s direction, politically speaking. They think Straus is insufficiently conservative and contend that his support from Democrats in the House is part of the problem.

The Democrats, of course, would love to have a Democrat in the top job or — short of that — the least conservative Republican they can find.

That most conservative member of the House would like to get a speaker from the most conservative part of the membership; one way to get that going is to get the Republicans in the House to agree on a candidate and then to elect that person even if every single Democrat objects.

That most liberal member of the House would rather elect a speaker with all of the Democrats and just enough Republicans to get the required 76 votes; in the current House, that would be 55 Democrats and 21 Republicans.

The House’s Republican Caucus will meet Dec. 1 to talk about the next speaker election and to hear from members hoping the caucus will stick together and vote as a bloc. In a state with at least two oppositional factions within its Republican Party, that’s no easy thing. The conservatives don’t want a moderate; the moderates might have a better chance at electing one of their own by siding with Democrats.

The Democrats are hoping the Republicans will remain split and that the next speaker will have to draw Democratic support.

A GOP working group found that party caucuses in 39 other states choose speaker candidates and vote as blocs. In many of those, as in Texas, it’s up to the full House to finally decide who presides. And here’s the thing: Texas doesn’t have a strong party structure in its Legislature, where majority and minority leaders have real power and where committee chairmanships all go to the majority.

As a practical matter, that leaves state representatives free to vote for the speaker that’s best for them — whether that suits their parties or not. If the caucuses had control over committees or rules, they’d be in a position to enforce caucus preferences for speaker — requiring each of their members to vote with the bloc or else. They don’t.

Still, they’re set to talk about it. Their proposal calls for a “secure vote” in a December meeting of the caucus preceding the January 2019 legislative session. It doesn’t include a recommendation as to whether that would be a secret or an open ballot. And there’s no provision to keep dissenters on board if they don’t like the candidate chosen by their fellow Republicans.

The process, at this point, is more important than the result. Members are testing each other, slowly figuring out who will stand where in a vote 14 months from now that will set the course for House leadership for several sessions to come. Whether the caucus votes together is less important than the direction they take: Right, left or straight ahead.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • In an interview with The Texas Tribune, House Speaker Joe Straus discusses his surprise announcement that he won’t seek re-election to the Texas Legislature. [Full story]
  • House Speaker Joe Straus has said he will resign at the end of his term, prompting a scramble for control of the lower chamber. Here’s who is running to replace Straus as speaker and those who have expressed interest in running. [Full story]
  • State ethics laws grant elected officials wide latitude on how they use their political contributions while in office — meaning there’s a lot outgoing House Speaker Joe Straus could do with his $10 million campaign war chest. [Full story]

Author:  ROSS RAMSEY – The Texas Tribune

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