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Home | Tag Archives: texas legislature

Tag Archives: texas legislature

Analysis: Texas redistricting is hard enough when politicians trust the mapmakers

The Texas Legislature’s once-every-decade* quest for new political maps will get a twist in 2021: The Texas House will have either a speaker whose trustworthiness is suspect or a brand-new speaker who’ll be riding in the wake of a scandal.

What’s at stake, for lawmakers, is whether they’ll have a chance at staying in office with the new maps. (The process is already underway, as of last week.) That’s how it goes with redistricting and the Texas House: The representatives of 150 political districts decide how to protect themselves and ruin their enemies by moving the lines around. Powerful members do better, on average, than weak ones. Members in the majority do better, on average, than members in the minority. And members who are on management’s good side do better, on average, than members who are not.

Members’ fates are, to a great extent, in the hands of the speaker.

And they are trying to figure out whether Dennis Bonnen, who became speaker less than nine months ago, can be trusted.

Bonnen has been accused of working against some of the incumbent Republican members of the House — people a Republican speaker would reasonably be expected to protect. In fact, he told reporters at the end of this year’s legislative session that he would punish House members who campaigned against colleagues from either party. The news in that — to reporters and to legislators alike — was that he was protecting Democrats as well as Republicans.

But he had a meeting a couple of weeks after the session with Michael Quinn Sullivan, the head of Empower Texans and a regular burr in the saddle of establishment Republicans. Bonnen told reporters in May that the group was beyond appeasement — “and I sure as hell am not going to waste my time trying.”

But he and then-House Republican Caucus Chairman Dustin Burrows of Lubbock not only met with Sullivan, but they allegedly ran their mouths, speaking openly and unflatteringly about other members and — according to Sullivan — offering to give House news media passes to his group if it would work for the defeats of 10 members of the House.

Author: ROSS RAMSEY – The Texas Tribune

Texas House Democrats ask Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special session after two mass shootings

Democrats in the Texas House are calling on Gov. Greg Abbott to convene a special legislative session to address gun violence — a move designed to place even more pressure on the state’s top GOP official to act in the wake of two deadly mass shootings just weeks apart.

A letter to Abbott was delivered Wednesday morning, hours before the House Democratic Caucus hosted five news conferences across the state to discuss “protecting Texans from gun violence.” The letter, which also included several gun-related legislative proposals, was signed by 61 of the 66 members in the caucus.

“Members of the House Democratic Caucus, for several sessions now, have proposed dozens of specific bills aimed at changing the status quo by making Texans safer through common-sense gun and public safety legislation,” the letter reads.

The caucus requested Abbott include issues such as “closing the background check loopholes” and “banning the sale of high-capacity magazines” in a special session agenda, along with “enacting extreme risk protective order laws and closing existing loopholes in current protective order laws,” “limiting the open carry of certain semi-automatic long guns” and “requiring stolen guns be reported to law enforcement.”

The Legislature does not convene again until 2021; Abbott has the sole authority to call both chambers back to the Capitol before then.

Democrats said Wednesday that waiting another year and a half to address gun violence in the state will endanger Texans.

“This is the kind of thing our constituents are telling us they want us to tackle, and they want us to tackle it now,” state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said. “We should not sacrifice any more Texas lives simply to accommodate a legislative calendar.”

On top of that, the next session will be bogged down with fights over redistricting, further polarizing the state and reducing the chance for consensus on gun safety legislation, Howard said.

During the press conference, however, a spokesperson for Abbott said released a statement that the governor “made clear in Odessa that all strategies are on the table that will lead to laws that make Texans safer” — but added that did not “include a helter skelter approach that hastily calls for perfunctory votes that divide legislators along party lines.”

“Instead, the Governor seeks consensus rather than division,” Abbott’s spokesperson said in a statement. “The Democrats who are part of today’s partisan pitch can be part of the bi-partisan legislative process announced yesterday that is geared toward achieving real solutions, or they can be part of politics as usual that will accomplish nothing. Legislating on tough issues is hard and takes time. If Democrats really want to change the law, they need to stop talking to cameras and start talking to colleagues in the Capitol to reach consensus.”

Howard countered the statement from Abbott’s office, however, and said as governor and a major leader among Republicans Abbott could build the consensus necessary to get gun safety legislation through both chambers and to his desk.

Over Labor Day weekend, a gunman on a rampage through Odessa and Midland killed seven people and injured 22 others. The tragedy there happened four weeks after a deadly shooting in El Paso that left 22 dead and more than two dozen wounded. The representative who led Wednesday morning’s Democratic press conference, Celia Israel of Austin, said she had been to the El Paso Walmart where the shooting occurred just a week before, and that her family could have easily been caught up in it.

“Our constituents deserve to know the Texas Legislature hears them,” Israel said. “We have security all around us [at the Capitol]” but are “painfully aware” of the danger for many Texans around the state as their go about their daily lives.

As Democrats have repeatedly urged Abbott to call a special session on the matter, the governor — along with other GOP leaders — have formed various entities to help explore long-term responses. After the El Paso shooting, Abbott assembled the Domestic Terrorism Task Force and the Texas Safety Commission.

Abbott also tweeted Monday night that he was considering a proposal to expedite executions of mass shooters. Democrats at the Wednesday press conference declined to comment on the proposal.

And on Tuesday, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced they had formed interim select committees to study “mass violence prevention and community safety.” The committees, the two GOP leaders said, will be tasked with studying and eventually recommending legislative solutions.

Bonnen on Wednesday announced the 13 House members who will serve on the select committee and directed the newly-formed panel to begin studying an array of issues related to gun violence and prevention, such as evaluating “options for strengthening enforcement measures for current laws that prevent the transfer of firearms to felons and other persons prohibited by current law from possessing firearms” and considering “current protocols and extreme risk indicators used to identify potential threats.”

Authors: CASSANDRA POLLOCK AND CHASE KARACOSTAS – The Texas Tribune

Texas Tribune, local lawmakers to visit EPCC to discuss 86th Texas Legislature

Early next month, the Texas Tribune will be hosting a recap discussion on El Paso and the 86th legislative session.

The Texas Tribune, along with local lawmakers, are touring the state with a series of post-session events recapping the major policy debates of the 86th Texas Legislature and what they mean for Texas’ largest cities and surrounding communities.

The conversation, moderated by Evan Smith co-founder and CEO of The Texas Tribune, will cover a wide-range of topics, from public education, taxes, immigration, health care, spending and other consequential matters.

The discussion will feature El Paso-area legislators, including state Sen. José Rodríguez and state Reps. César Blanco, Art Fierro, Joe Moody and Lina Ortega.

This free event will take place on Monday, August 5, 2019 at the El Paso Community College Administrative Services Center Auditorium. The event is free, open to the public and includes a light lunch.

Lunch and networking begin at 11:30 a.m. MT, followed by the conversation at noon.

For more information and to RSVP click here.

César Blanco, D-El Paso, has represented House District 76 since 2015. He sits on the House Environmental Regulation and International Relations & Economic Development committees. He also serves on the Transportation Policy Board of the El Paso Metropolitan Planning Organization. Previously, Blanco served as a military intelligence analyst in the U.S. Navy.

Art Fierro, D-El Paso, is currently serving his first term representing House District 79 after a 2019 special election. He sits on the House Agriculture & Livestock and Elections committees. Previously, Fierro served as chair of the El Paso Community College Board of Trustees.

Joe Moody, D-El Paso, has represented House District 78 since 2009. He serves as vice chair of the House Calendars Committee and sits on the Business & Industry, Criminal Jurisprudence and Redistricting committees. Previously, Moody served as a prosecutor in the El Paso County District Attorney’s office.

Lina Ortega, D-El Paso, has represented House District 77 since 2017. She sits on the House Administration, Public Health and Transportation committees. Previously, she served as chair of the El Paso County Ethics Commission and is past president of the Women’s Bar Association and the El Paso County Trial Lawyers Association. Ortega practices law in an El Paso law firm.

José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, has represented Senate District 29, which includes more than 350 miles of the Texas-Mexico border, since 2011. He serves as vice chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee and sits on the Natural Resources & Economic Development, Transportation and Water & Rural Affairs committees. Rodríguez also serves as chairman of the Texas Senate Democratic Caucus.

Teacher raises, all-day pre-K: Here’s what’s in Texas Legislature’s landmark school finance bill

After weeks of tough negotiations, lawmakers have come up with a final deal on how to increase public education funding and cut school district taxes — and it includes a compromise on raises for full-time teachers, nurses, counselors and librarians.

House Bill 3, a copy of which was obtained by The Texas Tribune after it began circulating in the Capitol on Thursday, includes money for free, full-day pre-K for eligible 4-year-old students; creates a more complex method of funding the cost of educating low-income students; pays school districts that want to offer merit pay programs for teachers; and creates a permanent state fund to lower school district tax rates.

Technical changes could still be made before both chambers take a vote on the negotiated version this weekend. Once lawmakers approve it, the bill can be sent to Gov. Greg Abbott to become law.

The basic rundown

Before final negotiations, the House’s version of HB 3 cost $9.4 billion, and the Senate’s cost a whopping $14.8 billion, according to Texas Education Agency calculations. The final cost is around $11.6 billion, according to lawmakers, though an official cost analysis has not been made public.

The House wanted to raise the base funding per student from $5,140 to $6,030, while the Senate wanted to raise it to $5,880. They decided on an even higher number of $6,160.

Both chambers had previously agreed to spend $6.3 billion on public education, including salary increases for teachers, and $2.7 billion for property tax cuts. This final bill appears to include about $6.5 billion for public education, including extra raises and benefits for school employees, and $5.1 billion for tax cuts.

Lawmakers estimated the negotiated version of the bill would lower tax rates by an average of 8 cents per $100 valuation in 2020 and 13 cents in 2021. That would mean a tax cut of $200 for the owner of a $250,000 home in 2020 and $325 in 2021. Legislators also said it would increase the state’s share of public education funding to 45% from 38%. They said it would lower school districts’ cumulative recapture payments, which wealthier districts pay to subsidize poorer districts, by $3.6 billion over two years.

A compromise on teacher pay

The compromise on raises mandates that a portion of the additional per-student funding school districts receive be spent on raises and benefits for teachers, librarians, nurses and counselors, with a smaller amount designated for raises as administrators see fit. Districts are encouraged to prioritize raises and benefits for teachers with more than five years of experience.

Districts will have a lot of flexibility on how exactly to distribute the extra compensation, among those four positions and among other school employees — making it difficult to calculate the exact statewide average raise.

School districts have had a difficult time making budgetary decisions this spring without knowing whether they will be required to give their teachers, or all their employees, a specific salary increase or how to assess the financial impact of a new set of school finance formulas.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, began the session pushing $5,000 permanent raises for all full-time teachers, an idea that had not been included in the recommendations from a state-sponsored school finance panel. For a few months at the beginning of the session, the Senate moved quickly on that proposal and stalled on rolling out any other specifics on how to improve public education.

The House, on the other hand, quickly rolled out a comprehensive school finance plan following many of the school finance panel’s recommendations. Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen made his opposition to Patrick’s across-the-board raises clear, saying he would prefer to give school districts flexibility on how to spend additional money. That proposal would have required school districts to use a percentage of their per-pupil funding increase on across-the-board raises for all school employees and another part for raises as administrators see fit — closer to the negotiated version.

The bill also, controversially, includes money for districts that want to start merit pay programs, giving bonuses of between $3,000 and $12,000 to their higher-rated teachers. It also provides money for high-needs and rural school districts that need help to incentivize teachers to work there. It does not require districts to use the state standardized test to determine which teachers get bonuses.

And the bill includes a few requirements to create advisory committees that will study how the state is funding special education and low-income students.

roperty tax system changes

In the negotiation, lawmakers also decided to drastically change the formulas that determine how local and state funding is allocated to school districts — taking heavily from the Senate’s school finance proposal.

The House had proposed a decrease in school district tax rates by 4 cents per $100 valuation statewide, as well as a mechanism to further decrease higher tax rates. State Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, unveiled a version of HB 3 near the end of April — relatively late in the legislative process — that included billions of dollars to lower rates by about 15 cents per $100 valuation, more than either chamber had budgeted.

The negotiated bill lowers tax rates statewide by 7 cents per $100 valuation, with the potential to go lower in future years. That’s a $175 annual cut for the owner of a $250,000 home, not counting other mechanisms in the bill to lower tax rates further.

According to lawmakers, HB 3 includes about $5.1 billion for school district tax cuts — again, more than the initial budget proposal of $2.7 billion. Some of the additional money comes from a new fund established to pay for those cuts. The state comptroller is required to deposit some money from the Available School Fund, which provides funding for schools derived from state-owned land and fuel taxes, and some money from an online sales tax into the new fund.

It is not immediately clear exactly what other sources of money contribute to cuts this biennium or how lawmakers expect to pay for tax cuts in the future. The bill requires the state’s nonpartisan budget board to study potential sources of money for future school district tax cuts and their anticipated impacts on taxpayers, schools and the state.

Current-year values

The bill includes a controversial provision to use property values from the current year to calculate how much state and local funding school districts receive. Today’s school finance system uses property values from the previous year to calculate funding. Though a very technical change, it will have a significant impact on the way the state determines public education funding.

Many superintendents have lobbied against it, arguing that using property values from the previous year allows the state to certify those numbers and gives school districts more predictability in their budgets. The bill creates a “hold harmless” grant to make sure school districts don’t lose money from this switch in the first few years.

But the switch also saves the state money since it would decrease state funding to school districts compared with current law. That would help the state be able to afford the increase in the base funding per student.

Abbott’s 2.5% plan

Starting in 2021, the state would limit the growth in school districts’ property tax revenue, an idea pitched by Abbott at the start of the session. School districts with property values growing 2.5% or more would have their tax rates automatically decreased to keep their tax revenue growth in line. The state would be required to reimburse school districts for any additional money they are entitled to.

Many school finance and tax experts pushed back, arguing the impact would be unequal across the state. Austin ISD, where values are growing quickly, would get to lower its tax rate significantly and decrease its contribution to recapture, or “Robin Hood,” through which wealthier districts subsidize poorer ones. Boles ISD, the poorest district in Texas with stagnant property values, would not get to significantly lower its tax rate through this provision.

To avoid allowing drastic differences in tax rates, HB 3 also includes language that would not allow fast-growing school districts to lower their tax rates more than 10% below the highest tax rate.

The result of this change would mean each school district has a different maximum tax rate, as opposed to now, when most districts cannot raise tax rates above $1.17 per $100 valuation.

Read related Tribune coverage

Author:  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 

Texas school safety measures expanded with House amendments to sweeping legislation

The Texas House expanded a sweeping school safety bill that now calls for students to learn about domestic violence prevention, requires certain training for school resource officers and would provide an undetermined amount of state money for campus security measures and mental health initiatives.

Some of the lower chamber’s additions to Senate Bill 11 on Tuesday revived the language or intent of a handful of House bills that were presumed dead after they failed to gain traction throughout the legislative session that ends Monday. Those successful amendments and the bill itself are lawmakers’ response to last year’s deadly shooting at Santa Fe High School.

“This legislation is inspired by the students, faculty and staff at Santa Fe High School,” said state Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, the House sponsor of the bill.

The House tentatively approved the new version of SB 11 in a 128-14 vote Tuesday. It now heads back to the Senate, which must agree to the changes or call for a conference committee to iron out the differences between the two chambers’ versions.

State Sen. Larry Taylor, a Republican from Friendswood and the Senate author of the bill, said he was working closely with Bonnen on language for the final version. Both men represent Santa Fe Independent School District.

The Senate version of the bill was overwhelmingly approved last month. It would strengthen mental health initiatives in Texas schools and ensure school districts’ employees — including substitute teachers — are equipped to respond to emergencies by requiring they have classroom access to a telephone and other electronic communication. It would also establish threat assessment teams to help identify potentially dangerous students and determine the best ways to intervene before they become violent. The reworked bill from the Texas House keeps these provisions in place.

SB 11, under both chambers’ versions, also requires school districts to appoint school safety committees that meet once a semester to provide their boards of trustees with recommendations for updates to their districts’ emergency operations plans.

In the revised version of the bill, Bonnen stripped a provision from the Senate bill which offered loan repayment assistance to those who serve as school counselors and licensed specialists on school psychology.

House lawmakers Tuesday also tacked on a number of amendments to the omnibus school safety bill including one, by Bonnen, saying that threat assessment teams can not provide mental health services for students younger than 18 unless they receive written consent from their parents. Another by state Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, requires school curriculums include courses on mental health and suicide prevention.

The lower chamber’s approval of Taylor’s bill comes on the heels of the anniversary of a shooting at Santa Fe High School, which left 10 dead and another 13 wounded. The bill touches on a number of proposals Gov. Greg Abbott laid out in a 43-page school safety plan he released less than two weeks after the shooting, including strengthening school security and mental health counseling.

School safety, among a number of other measures, topped Abbott’s priority list that he laid out early this year. During his State of the State speech, the governor reassured Texans that the Legislature would take steps this year to ensure a tragedy like the one at Santa Fe wouldn’t happen again.

And aside from Taylor’s sweeping school safety measure approved by the Texas House Tuesday, other school safety measures picking up steam this year include a bevy of bills that would alter an existing state-sanctioned program to arm teachers, including one to abolish a state-sanctioned cap on how many trained school employees can carry guns on campus.

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 

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 

Rep. González to be Honored with Border Network for Human Rights’ Champion Award

On Saturday, Representative Mary González will be awarded the Border Network for Human Rights Champion Award alongside Representative Cesar Blanco for their advocacy at the Texas Legislature, fighting for legislation that protects and enhances the rights of immigrant communities and migrant families.

“It is an honor to be recognized with talented and relentless leaders like Representative Cesar Blanco, Linda Rivas at the Las Americas Advocacy Center, and Melisa López with the Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services,” said Rep. González.

“These leaders have worked tirelessly to provide migrants with increased opportunities and access to economic and social mobility.”

“At this very moment, there are still children who are separated from their parents. We can never forget that our work in opposition to dehumanizing immigration policies will not conclude until immigrants are treated with dignity and respect in our country,” said Rep. González.

As Vice Chair of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, Rep. González has led several efforts in her district of far east El Paso, as well as throughout the state.

Most recently, in partnership with the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, Rep. González organized the Family Unity Day of Action Vigil & Rally held outside Senator Cornyn’s office in Austin, with events taking place in three other cities.

She demanded the end to inhumane policies like “zero-tolerance,” and the humane treatment of migrants seeking asylum at our Texas borders.

After high school shooting, Texas campuses could soon have more armed marshals

In the first legislative session after a deadly shooting at Santa Fe High School that left 10 dead and 13 others wounded, the Texas Senate on Monday advanced a bill that would abolish the limit on how many trained school employees — known as school marshals — can carry guns on campus.

Under the marshal program, school personnel whose identities are kept secret from all but a few local officials, are trained to act as armed peace officers in the absence of law enforcement. Currently, schools that participate in the program can only designate one marshal per 200 student or one marshal per building.

“School districts need to be able to tailor the school marshal program for their unique needs,” State Sen. Brandon Creighton, a Conroe Republican who authored Senate Bill 244, said about the legislation last week. “SB 244 removes those limitations in statute on the school marshal program to accommodate the unique needs of districts across the state.

“Each individual district would be able to make those choices on what’s best for them.”

But advocacy groups such as Moms Demand Action immediately decried the legislation.

“I’m very concerned for the safety of our schoolchildren as lawmakers continue to pass bills that would aggressively increase how many of our children’s teachers are armed,” Hilary Whitfield, a volunteer leader with the Texas chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said in a statement. “We all want to keep our schools safer, but adding guns to the problem is not the solution.”

The bill passed 20 to 10, with only Democrats opposed. But State Sens. Royce West, D-Dallas, and Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, both sided with the upper chambers’ Republicans and voted in favor of the measure. The bill can now be sent to the Texas House for debate.

Former state Rep. Jason Villalba, a Dallas-area Republican who authored the bill that created the Texas school marshal program, told The Texas Tribune that the cap on how many marshals can be on each campus was proposed by police groups that helped to create the legislation.

“The risk of having five officers in a single building and police coming to the scene is you begin to lose track of the good guys versus the bad guys,” he said. “The police were saying, ‘If we go to a scene and there are four non-uniformed individuals carrying guns and one bad guy, it’s very difficult for us to determine at the time in the heat of that moment the good guy from the bad guy.’”

“I’d be very careful,” about that proposal, Villalba said. “When you have multiple [marshals] in a single building, that could create some risks that are difficult.”

Villalba emphasized that he wasn’t against Creighton’s bill since he hadn’t read its full text, but said, “there’s a reason we had that number.”

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 

Here’s how different proposals at the Texas Capitol could change property tax bills

Top state leaders have toured the state promising Texans they will feel less financially cramped by oversized property tax bills after the legislative session.

So far, the two legislative chambers have taken different approaches to keep that promise, meaning they will have to hash out an agreement this spring.

To make a difference in the average homeowner’s tax bill, lawmakers must address school districts, which levy more than 50 percent of all local property taxes in the state. A few proposals on the table would provide some amount of tax relief for residents with different home values.

How would those proposals affect you next year? It depends on where you live and what kind of home you own.

House Bill 3

The House’s comprehensive bill on school finance and property tax reform, authored by Public Education Chair Dan Huberty, R-Houston, would lower school district tax rates statewide by four cents per $100 of taxable value. It would also further buy down property taxes for school districts with higher tax rates and limit their ability to immediately raise them. This would affect both homes and commercial properties in school district boundaries.

After getting voter approval in 2018, Dallas ISD now taxes at the maximum rate of $1.17 per $100 of taxable value; under this bill, it would tax at $1.09. Round Rock ISD, a suburban district, would tax at $1 per $100 of taxable value, instead of $1.04.

The original version of the bill would spend about $2.7 billion on property tax relief. HB 3 passed out of the House Wednesday with a nearly unanimous vote.

Senate Bill 5

A bipartisan group of state senators, including the upper chamber’s property tax champion, Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, has proposed expanding an exemption homeowners are entitled to receive on the value of their home for school district taxes.

The legislation would boost the exemption from $25,000 to $35,000 if voters pass a constitutional amendment, and it would make up the lost school district funding by using revenue from oil and gas production taxes. (Because this bill would require voter approval, it probably would not kick in until 2021.) It has a biennial cost of about $1.5 billion.

Unlike HB 3, this bill would not affect school districts’ ability to set tax rates. It has been heard in the Senate Property Tax Committee, which has not taken a vote.

House Bill 4352

The House Democratic Caucus has championed this bill by state Rep. Ramon Romero Jr., D-Fort Worth, as a key portion of its “Texas Kids First Plan” for public education. It would double the exemption homeowners are entitled to on their home values for school taxes, from $25,000 to $50,000, if voters pass a constitutional amendment.

The bill does not include language on exactly how it would reimburse school districts for the lost funding. Like SB 5, it would not affect school districts’ ability to set tax rates.

HB 4352 has a biennial cost of about $3.4 billion, but would not kick in until 2021, because of the voter approval needed. It has not been taken up by a committee.

Read related Tribune coverage

Authors: ALIYYA SWABYCHRIS ESSIG AND SHANNON NAJMABADI – 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 

Debate over Texas abortion bill prompts tears, frustration and a boycott from Democrats

A Texas House committee’s attempt to consider a bill regarding “the rights of a living child born after an abortion” boiled over Monday, leading to tears from the committee chairman, frustration from Republicans and a boycott by Democrats that delayed the hearing for a few hours.

At issue was House Bill 16, filed by Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano. The bill would require doctors to care for a baby who survives an abortion procedure. It was scheduled to be heard by the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee at 8 a.m. but was put on hold after four Democrats and one Republican didn’t show up.

Leach said state Rep. Morgan Meyer, R-Dallas, missed because of a flight delay. The four Democrats, meanwhile, signed onto a statement saying that they would not “join this charade,” apparently referring to Leach’s anti-abortion proposal.

“While some members of the Texas Legislature insist on attacking as well as offending women directly and indirectly, we will not join this charade by participating in this political grandstanding on issues which are already codified in Texas and Federal law,” read a statement signed by state Reps. Victoria Neave of Dallas, Julie Johnson of Carrollton, Jessica Farrar of Houston and Yvonne Davis of Dallas. “We refuse to offend our fellow Texas women, their families, and licensed physicians by wasting time on unnecessary legislation designed to intimidate and restrict women’s access to healthcare.”

That forced Leach to postpone the the hearing, since at least five of nine committee members are needed for a quorum. But he insisted on moving forward, instead opting to convene the committee after the full House met and Meyer had returned.

In a statement, Leach said he was “disheartened in the decision by my friends and fellow committee members to skip this morning’s hearing simply because they don’t agree on the issue at hand.” He added that their absence translated into a disregard for “the voices of Texans” that “greatly undermined our legislative process.”

Another Republican on the committee told The Texas Tribune that he was “shocked” other members weren’t present in the morning.

“I drove last night from 3:15 to 6:15 just to get here,” said state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, who said his flight to Austin was canceled Sunday afternoon. “So if you want to make the effort to be there, you got to find a way to be there. Sometimes you can’t — I know there were weather issues for [Meyer] coming down. We just need to make sure we’re doing all we can to make the process work as efficiently and effectively as it can.”

Meyer made it to the afternoon meeting and explained his absence in a statement.

“My morning routine often includes dropping my kindergartener off at school and ensuring my 5th and 7th graders get out the door in time for carpool, and with my wife out of town today, I notified Chairman Leach that this would create a slight delay in my arrival,” he said. “I look forward to joining Chairman Leach as we hear testimony on a number of bills this afternoon, and I hope our fellow committee members can rise above their political differences and make it a priority to do the same.”

But the four Democrats never came. That sparked more anger from Leach, who could be seen crying from the dais during the testimony of one witness.

“Just because I don’t agree with an issue or support a certain bill doesn’t mean I should stifle and/or ignore the voices of the people of Texas,” he said. “I will encourage every member of this committee, whether they agree or not, to be present and listen to the people of Texas.”

Leach’s bill would create a civil penalty of “not less than $100,000” for physicians who fail to provide appropriate medical treatment to a child born during an attempted abortion. Farrar, chairwoman of the Texas House Women’s Health Caucus, called the bill a “a solution in search of a problem.” Existing federal and state statutes protect infants born alive after an abortion, and there were no live births resulting from an abortion in Texas between 2013 and 2016, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

“Why are we wasting time on this?” she said.

But the bill drew enthusiastic support from some witnesses, including Nashville-based anti-abortion advocate Giana Jessen, who described herself as an abortion survivor. Jessen chastised the Democrats for missing the meeting.

“There were some who chose to not show up — did not even give our lives any time,”Jessen said.

The panel didn’t vote on the bill Monday; committees regularly leave bills pending for a week before voting them out. But the legislation has strong support among Republicans in the House. More than 70 members of the 150-person chamber have signed on as co-authors.

Authors: CASSANDRA POLLOCK AND ARYA SUNDARAMThe Texas Tribune

Texas Senate unanimously passes $5,000 teacher pay raises, adding librarians

The Texas Senate on Monday unanimously passed a bill that would provide $5,000 annual pay raises for full-time classroom teachers and librarians, at a cost of $4 billion over the next two years.

Authored by the Senate’s lead budget writer Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, Senate Bill 3 has been a priority of Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick since he announced it at January’s inauguration. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott declared teacher pay an emergency item at his State of the State speech last month, allowing lawmakers to move more quickly to get related bills through the legislative process.

SB 3 is the first bill addressing an emergency item to be passed out of either chamber. Every single member of the Senate signed onto the bill as co-author.

“We know that teachers are dipping into their own personal funds to pay for classroom supplies. Our teachers are struggling financially,” said Nelson, laying out the bill Monday. “The one thing we need to do first and foremost is to recognize the need to uplift our whole teaching profession.”

She successfully proposed an amendment to SB 3 that would add librarians to the group of educators who would receive the raise, adding $53 million to the cost of the bill.

“Librarians are teachers. … I didn’t realize that we as a state require our librarians to have spent two years in the classroom,” she said.

But she resisted efforts by Democrats, including Sen. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, to add other school staff such as counselors and nurses to the bill, because it would increase the cost too much. She said school districts could decide locally to increase raises for other staff.

State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, asked Nelson whether she would support merit pay proposals to reward the most effective teachers. She indicated it would be included in a school finance reform measure that state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, is expected to file — Senate Bill 4.

Outside of the upper chamber, responses to the bill are mixed, with the conservative group Empower Texans, a key contributor to Patrick’s campaign, coming out against it unless lawmakers also pass “sufficient property tax relief.” And the proposal could face steep odds in the lower chamber, where House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, has maintained that he would prefer to instead provide local school districts more flexibility with how they spend those funds.

In January, the day after Nelson filed SB 3, Bonnen told reporters that the state would be better off giving those districts the money to decide how to “manage their own salaries and pay their teachers there.” And last week, Bonnen told Lubbock radio host Chad Hasty that while both chambers are “committed to doing better” for Texas teachers, the House “may have a different approach than” the Senate.

Other top House Republicans have aligned with Bonnen on the issue, suggesting a flexible block grant to help schools recruit and retain teachers would be the more thoughtful approach.

The proposal has also garnered divided responses from within the education advocacy community, with superintendents wanting more flexibility on how to use additional funding and many teachers wanting the directed raises. At a Senate Finance Committee hearing last week, educators expressed their appreciation for the bill, while asking lawmakers to expand it to librarians, school counselors and support staff.

“The Legislature also must appropriate funding for pay raises for all school employees,” said Noel Candelaria, president of the Texas State Teachers Association, in a statement after SB 3 passed Monday. “Counselors, nurses, bus drivers and other support staff also are important to creating safe and healthy learning environments for Texas’ 5.4 million public school children.”

A number of House Democrats have championed expanding pay raises to other school staff, as well as addressing rising teacher health care premiums. In a planunveiled by the House Democratic Caucus earlier this month, members proposed $3.78 billion for teacher pay and benefits. It was unclear at the time of the announcement how much exactly would be set aside for raises.

Patrick first advocated for increased teacher pay in a 2017 special legislative session, but he wanted school districts to reallocate existing funding to pay for it. That proposal did not move far through the legislative process before getting axed, when education advocates came out against it.

The bill would also cover the increased cost of teacher pension contributions for school districts as a result of the pay raises, and would stop districts from decreasing the raises in future years.

Authors: ALIYYA SWABY AND CASSANDRA POLLOCK –  The Texas Tribune

Texas’ savings account is poised to hit $15 billion. How much will lawmakers spend?

More than in any legislative session since the Great Recession, Texas lawmakers are signaling a willingness this year to dip into the state’s massive savings account.

As the Legislature debates costly investments in property tax reduction and public schools, and with big bills coming due for retired teachers’ pensions and Hurricane Harvey recovery, Texas’ Economic Stabilization Fund is taking center stage in budget negotiations.

Left untouched, the savings account, also known as the rainy day fund, would reach an unprecedented $15 billion over the next two years, according to official estimates.

State lawmakers have proposed an ambitious and expensive legislative agenda for 2019, and with economists raising concerns that an oversized savings account will lose value over time and weigh down the economy, Texas’ Republican leadership appears eager to dip into the piggy bank.

“I think we all are realistic that we may have to tap into the rainy day fund for one-time expenditures, more than we have in the past,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said at a recent hearing.

Billions of dollars now in the state savings account

An oil boom that began in the early 2000s has poured billions into the state’s rainy day fund, but lawmakers have spent only a small portion of the fund’s balance, leading it to grow to $11 billion in 2018.

A proposal in the Texas Senate would spend $2.5 billion from the fund this year in a “supplemental” budget covering unfunded expenses from last session. The money would go toward a variety of purposes, including hurricane recovery-related costs for school districts, teacher pensions and school safety improvements.

Spending $2.5 billion at once would rank among the largest withdrawals in the fund’s history, behind only a $3.2 billion expense approved by the Legislature in 2011 following a national economic downturn. That year, lawmakers nonetheless slashed public programs, including cutting billions from public schools.

The Texas House, meanwhile, recommends spending $633 million from the fund in 2020-21, but that number will probably grow after the chamber unveils its supplemental budget for unpaid bills coming due this year.

When the Legislature created the Economic Stabilization Fund in 1987, no one expected it would grow as large as it has, said Dale Craymer, who helped draft the proposal as a staffer for then-House Speaker Gib Lewis. Craymer is now president of the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association.

In the 1980s, the Texas economy wilted amid an oil and gas downturn. Lawmakers raised taxes and cut public programs to dig themselves out of a budget shortfall. They created the stabilization fund as a way for the state to set aside money, earned when oil and gas revenues were robust, to be spent during times of economic hardship — effectively insulating public programs from whiplash as oil and gas prices rose and fell.

Starting in the early 2000s, as drilling technologies allowed companies to access new fossil fuel reserves, the state raked in tax revenue and the fund swelled. Meanwhile, the growing balance became a point of pride for some conservative lawmakers, and the Legislature became more reluctant to make large withdrawals. But that may be changing this year, Craymer said.

“It was created to be a tool, not a sacred cow,” he said. “At some point you have to ask the question, ‘How much is too much?’”

Flow of cash into and out of the state savings account

The Economic Stabilization Fund was created to allow lawmakers to set aside money during flush times to be spent when revenue came up short. Over time, money coming in has greatly exceeded the money going out.

The fund has $11 billion, enough money to cover 10 percent of all state funds Texas currently spends in a two-year budget.

Policymakers have floated radically different ideas about how much money the state should keep in savings, and Republican politics have evolved about what “rainy day” expenses are considered acceptable.

In 2015, the Legislature diverted about half of the money that would have flowed into the savings account to go instead to the state highway fund. By doing so, it slowed the rate at which the Economic Stabilization Fund could grow.

This year, Gov. Greg Abbott has discussed diverting more oil and gas tax revenue from the savings account to “build a sustainable education fund.” Critics worry such a proposal could lead schools to be too dependent on a volatile revenue source while further limiting the savings account’s ability to grow.

Comptroller Glenn Hegar has asked the Legislature for more authority to invest part of the savings account in an endowment so that it earns more money over time. Hegar has suggested using the returns on that investment to pay for long-term liabilities, such as public employees’ pensions, that the Texas Legislature chronically neglects.

Under current law, much of the fund must be kept available to be spent on short notice, limiting the fund’s ability to maintain its value. As of August, most of the fund’s balance is kept in short-term investments yielding returns of about 2.1 percent, a rate not high enough to keep pace with inflation, Hegar said.

“In effect, the state is losing purchasing power and leaving money on the table that could be raised through common, prudent investment strategies,” he wrote in a report last year.

Authors: EDGAR WALTERS AND CHRIS ESSIGThe Texas Tribune

State Sen. José Rodríguez Statement on Priorities for 86th Legislature

Austin – On Tuesday, the following statement was released by Senator José Rodríguez,  Chairman of Texas Senate Democratic Caucus:

While the Texas Legislature has taken great efforts to ensure the prosperity of our State, there are still many issues we must face together. As Democratic Members of the Texas Senate, we will fight for education for all, access to health care, and empowering those who call Texas home.

Every child deserves a quality education no matter their race, gender, residence, or household income. The Senate Democratic Caucus believes it’s our duty to fight for more resources in every classroom across Texas. We can do this by increasing per student spending and funding special allotments tailored to each school district. In doing so, we will also be affording true property tax relief to taxpayers. We must bring equity to our school finance system to ensure all of our children get the fair shot they deserve.

Texas has the highest rate of uninsured children and adults in the country. Unfortunately, this trend is only growing and placing heavy burdens on working families. Together, we will fight for quality and affordable health care for everyone in Texas. Access to care is also key to the well-being of our State. It’s vital we work to increase accessibility to families regardless of their zip code, gender, or race. These initiatives will help ensure the health of our State, and the people who reside within it.

Each county, city, and school district is unique in Texas. They are the economic engines that drive the success of our State in the nation and the world. The Legislature should provide opportunities for their success instead of hindering their growth. Any changes relating to limiting local governments’ ability to provide and fund services should be avoided, as instituting these policies will do little to reduce the burden on taxpayers. Instead, we should work with our local officials and communities to ensure our State’s continued economic well-being.

Our democracy is built on the foundation of free and fair elections. The people’s voice rang clear this past November, and as a legislative body, it’s our job to listen. We must also protect every citizen’s right to vote and engage in our democracy. Unfortunately, there are those within our State who would rather deny or suppress the voice of the people. Together, we will fight these and similar injustices in our voting system to ensure every voice is heard and every vote is counted. We can achieve this through expanding voting rights in Texas and assisting those who wish to exercise their constitutional right to be heard.

These are the tenets we stand for as Democrats within the Texas Senate. It’s our hope to work with our colleagues on each of these issues this Legislative Session. Together, we can deliver on the promise of a fair shot for every Texan and ensure our State’s future success.

***

José Rodríguez represents Texas Senate District 29, which includes the counties of El Paso, Hudspeth, Culberson, Jeff Davis, and Presidio. He represents both urban and rural constituencies, and more than 350 miles of the Texas-Mexico border. Senator Rodríguez currently serves as the Chairman of the Texas Senate Democratic Caucus, and is a member of the Senate Committees on Agriculture (Vice Chair), Transportation, Natural Resources and Economic Development, and Water and Rural Affairs.

Texas leaders want voters to OK property tax revenue growth over 2.5 percent. They couldn’t get 4 percent in 2017.

Flanked by the state’s top legislative leaders, Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday announced that both chambers of the Texas Legislature will push to curb property tax growth by limiting how much money local governments collect without voter approval.

Abbott was joined by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, as well as the heads of both chambers’ tax-writing committees, in making the announcement. Their news conference followed the filing of two identical bills in both chambers, Senate Bill 2 and House Bill 2.

Abbott said it was “completely unprecedented” for lawmakers to be so closely aligned on such an important issue this early in the session.

“Most importantly, it’s a testament to the voters in this state,” he said. “The voters demanded this, and this demonstrates that the Texas Legislature is responsive to the needs of our voters.”

Thursday’s bills would require voters to approve a tax rate that allows government entities like cities, counties and school districts to collect an additional 2.5 percent in revenues from existing property compared with a previous year. The threshold would not apply to small taxing units — those whose potential property and sales tax collections are $15 million or less.

Currently, cities and counties can collect an additional 8 percent in revenues without involving voters. But even then, residents must collect enough signatures to force an election. The new pair of bills would automatically trigger what’s called a rollback election. If voters shoot down the measure, the government entity would have to set a tax rate that allows it to only collect revenues from existing properties that are less than 2.5 percent more than the previous year.

The rollback rate is also based on the appraised value of properties within a taxing unit’s borders. That means a city or county could hit the rollback election threshold without changing its tax rate – or even if they lower the tax rate – if there is a significant increase in local property values.

The legislation does not apply a cap to individual property tax bills. Because it would only limit how much government entities can collect in property tax revenues before getting voter approval, an agency could stay below the rollback election rate and that portion of a property owner’s tax bill could still increase.

Local officials are almost certain to to push back. Bennett Sandlin is the executive director of the Texas Municipal League, which advocates for city governments. His organization estimates that about 150 of the state’s largest cities would be affected if the legislation passes. He said that the rollback threshold is lower than inflation and could prevent cities from paying for first responders’ raises, filling potholes and keeping recreation centers or libraries open.

“It is actually a service reduction,” Sandlin said.

School districts get the majority of their money from local property tax revenue, and the state pays for most of the rest. Under Thursday’s legislation, with local revenue growth slowed, the state would have to pay for more public education. But state leaders have not said where that money will come from.

And while lawmakers could provide more funding for education, there is no current mechanism for helping cities and counties with their budgets.

State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, said in a statement that property taxes are so high because the state has relied on local taxes to fund education, instead of increasing its share of the cost.

“An arbitrary revenue cap, one that will also make it more difficult for local communities to fund public safety, is not going to solve this problem,” said Turner, who also chairs the Texas House Democratic Caucus.

The legislation filed Thursday sets the rollback threshold well below the amounts that drew heavy opposition from city and county leaders two years ago, when the House and Senate could not agree on where to place the rollback rate. State officials warned local leaders Thursday, though, that the chambers and the governor will be united this year. And, they said, local leaders should come to Austin armed with solutions – and not to just voice opposition.

“We ask you to come to the table and work with us on behalf of the taxpayers that we all represent, but you will not be dividing the House and the Senate and the governor on the solution,” Bonnen said. “So join us in finding the right solution because we’re already joined together.”

Sandlin worries that because the proposed revenue caps wouldn’t apply to smaller taxing entities, lawmakers who represent rural areas will more apt to support the bills. That could leave legislators from urban areas alone in a fight against the 2.5 percent threshold.

“It’s a bit of a divide-and-conquer strategy,” Sandlin said.

Bonnen called the unveiling of the legislation “the first step in solving the biggest problem facing Texas taxpayers.”

The state leaders were joined at the news conference by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, the chairman of the new Senate Property Tax Committee, and state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, the new chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. The participants traded some jokes as they rolled out the legislation, at one point musing that they should call it “HB 2.5” instead of HB 2 — a reference to the proposed rollback rate.

Sandlin didn’t find humor in the proposed 2.5 percent cap, though.

“It’s just draconian compared to prior versions,” he said.

Disclosure: The Texas Municipal League 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.

Authors: BRANDON FORMBYPATRICK SVITEK 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: 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

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