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Home | Tag Archives: texas senate

Tag Archives: texas senate

Analysis: Texas candidates have one week left to sign up or shut up

In one week, we’ll know who’s going to have a primary. Who is going to have a fight in November. Who’s quitting. Who isn’t quitting.

The table will be set for a big 2020 election — and for a very interesting political science experiment in a state that has been unshakably reliable for Republicans since the mid-1990s.

The 2018 elections didn’t follow historical patterns. Turnout was huge: 8.4 million Texans voted in a year when 5.5 million to 6 million — based on past results — would have been considered normal.

That kind of a participation bump — 2 million or 3 million people, give or take — can change an election. And people have been talking about the results ever since: closer Republican wins, including some nail-biters, in statewide races; a Democratic gain of one in the state Senate; a Democratic gain of 12 in the state House.

The big dogs, starting with President Donald Trump, are clearly not taking Texas for granted. And judging by the candidate filings so far, neither are the incumbents and their challengers.

The Democrats and Republicans both want to find out whether the 2018 results marked a change in the political winds in Texas or were just a one-time glitch in a familiar and comfortable Republican pattern.

Republicans raising money for next year’s defense have suggested more than 30 seats in the Texas House could be in play; that is, that either party could win, depending on how things go.

The Texas maps for statehouse and congressional seats were drawn by Republican majorities to favor Republican candidates. But that baked-in bias has faded over the course of the decade. It produced as many as 98 Republican seats at one point; only 83 seats now belong to the GOP.

And because it’s time for a fresh round of redistricting, state and national political people are fighting for a Texas House majority after the 2020 elections.

But are there really that many competitive seats?

Only if you use a broad definition. In 2018, fewer than 10 percentage points separated winners from losers in statewide races — like those for governor and other top offices — in 31 Texas House districts. Of those districts, 18 are held by Republicans and 13 by Democrats.

Those districts are competitive, based on those statewide results. But not all of those House races were competitive in 2018: Those results depended more heavily on the candidates who chose to run.

And candidates are making their decisions now, looking at past results and gauging their chances. Some will look for even better climates: Only 13 districts had a partisan difference of 5 percentage points or fewer. Republicans hold seven of those and Democrats hold six.

That’s a tighter target list. It doesn’t take particularly good and particularly bad candidates into account, or money or fame, any one of which can and does change the results. It’s just a starting place.

The Senate has only one district — held by Republican Pete Flores — that is truly competitive, and that’s not enough to flip the GOP’s control in the upper chamber.

The House is the place where both parties are looking for improvement. Democrats, with 67 seats, need to flip nine to get a majority (and eight to bring the House into perfect 75-75 balance). Republicans, who didn’t expect to lose 12 seats a year ago — and who suspect some of those results were one-time flukes — will be trying to reverse their losses.

And when candidate filing is complete Dec. 9, that competition will finally be underway.

Author: ROSS RAMSEYThe Texas Tribune

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

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.”

Read related Tribune coverage

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 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.

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Texas Senate gives local governments more breathing room for property tax revenue growth

The Texas Senate broke a logjam Monday that had paralyzed a piece of priority legislation for weeks — blunting a controversial provision in a property tax reform package and then advancing the bill, without having to deploy a procedural “nuclear option” to move it.

A vote on Senate Bill 2, a top imperative for state leaders, had been expected last week. But an apparent lack of support stalled the vote in the upper chamber, where the backing of 19 senators is generally required to bring a bill up for debate. After Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick threatened to blow past decades of tradition and bring the measure to a vote with a simple majority, state Sen. Kel Seliger, a vocal dissenter, relented Monday, allowing the bill onto the floor. He did not support its passage.

Seliger’s announcement came alongside a reworked bill, that was unveiled Monday with a handful of technical changes and one notable concession. As updated, SB 2 will force cities, counties and other taxing entities to receive voter approval before raising 3.5% more property tax revenue than the previous year — a change from the 2.5% trigger originally proposed. School districts would still face the 2.5% threshold under the version of the bill approved Monday.

Revenue generated on new construction does not count toward the threshold. And small taxing units, with sales and property tax levies under $15 million annually, will need to opt into some of SB 2’s provisions in an election.

Municipal leaders and lawmakers like Seliger, a former mayor, have called the 2.5% figure punitively low and said it would cripple local governments’ ability to provide public safety services. A 1 percentage point increase is unlikely to appease them; the Senate and House deadlocked at higher thresholds of 4% and 6%, respectively, in 2017.

But a long-shot bid to replace the 3.5% figure with 6% did not advance Monday. Other amendments — which would have exempted hospital districts, community colleges and certain municipal services from parts of the property tax legislation — all failed, largely on party-line votes.

And when state Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Burleson, described the possible effects of SB 2 on her local cities and counties, it prompted the author of the legislation, Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, to respond: “This is where my teddy bear becomes a grizzly bear.” Her amendment was not adopted.

One successful change came from Sen. Pete Flores, R-Pleasanton, who proposed allowing the money counties spend on indigent defense to be factored into their tax rates.

After three hours of debate, SB 2 passed on an 18-13 vote, with Seliger joining the upper chamber’s Democrats in opposition. It was then given final approval on an 18-12 vote — with Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, voting present — and will be sent to the House for further debate.

The lower chamber, meanwhile, has postponed discussion of its property tax reform legislation until April 24. Unlike the Senate’s version, the House has exempted hospital districts, community colleges, emergency service districts and school districts from abiding by a 2.5% election trigger — a move that has inflamed far-right lawmakers and activists, who say homeowners will feel scant relief if those entities are exempted.

Currently, taxing units can bring in 8% more property tax revenue before voters can petition for an election to roll back the increase. SB 2 and the companion measure in the House would make those elections automatic and would make a battery of widely supported reforms designed to increase transparency and utility for taxpayers.

The state’s Republican Governor, Greg Abbott, applauded the bill’s advancement. The upper chamber has taken “action to deliver on the promise of reining in skyrocketing property taxes,” Abbott said in a statement. “Meaningful property tax reform is one step closer to becoming a reality.”

The “nuclear option”

SB 2’s progress Monday followed a months-long stalemate in the upper chamber, culminating in a stalled attempt to bring the measure before the full Senate for the first time last Thursday. That evening, after hours of closed-door negotiations, Patrick informed several Democratic senators that if no deal was reached by Monday, he would exercise a nuclear option — blowing past a tradition that requires three-fifths of senators to vote to bring a bill to the floor.

Patrick appeared fully prepared to take that route. But the maneuver — unheard of in recent memory — was ultimately not necessary.

School districts

Even after Monday’s modifications, a key difference between the House’s and Senate’s legislation is their approach to school districts.

House Bill 2 no longer contains language about schools, and leaders in the lower chamber have said another measure — approved by a wide margin in early April — will reduce school districts’ tax rates by 4 cents per $100 of taxable property value.

The most recent draft of SB 2 reins in increases to school district tax rates using language that appears similar to what was in the original version of the bill — language Bettencourt’s office once referred to as a placeholder. According to the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, a business-backed association, the provision would actually allow school districts to increase their tax rates without voter approval, as long as the rate increase was less than 2.5%. Currently, school districts must go to voters if they raise taxes above $1.04 per $100 valuation up to the maximum $1.17.

“An initial attempt at a one-size fits all solution was included in HB 2 and SB 2 as introduced — but however well-intentioned, the school language didn’t work,” Dale Craymer, TTARA’s president, wrote in a critique of the bill.

He has said the House’s school finance legislation, which would lower school district tax rates statewide, provides “both tax relief and tighter constraints on future tax increases.”

Nevertheless, an attempt from Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, to strip school district language from SB 2 swiftly failed Monday. Watson, a former mayor, later said the House’s education bill — which was removed from a schedule indicating it would be heard in committee this week — was being held hostage to pass the upper chamber’s property tax measure.

“SB 2 is not the place for the debate as it relates to school district taxes,” he said.

Abbott has said school districts must have a limit on their ability to increase property owners’ tax rates by more than 2.5%.

“Keeping my promise to the people”

Speaking to reporters after SB 2 was given preliminary approval, Bettencourt said the bill tackled the “most important issue that the state is facing this legislative session” and represented a “historic step.” He and other proponents of the measure often note that the current rollback rate of 8% was set during a period of high-inflation during the late-1970s and never revisited.

Bettencourt thanked Patrick for his leadership, saying it “may not have occurred in the way that it did” without the lieutenant governor’s warning.

Patrick, meanwhile, reiterated the need for property tax reform and seemed to stand by his threat to use the “nuclear option.”

“When you run for office, you tell the people what you’re going to do and then you go do it,” he said. “That’s a statesman. You don’t get tangled up in some procedures and practices that the people back home don’t know about or don’t care about. What they want is tax relief and my job as lieutenant governor is keeping my promise to the people.”

Seliger, the Republican senator, said he has alternate legislation that would help reduce property taxes, including by capping the rate at which appraisals grow — a proposal Abbott seems to have shown support for. The state’s top three leaders have also backed a plan to use a one-cent sales tax increase to lower property taxes.

The governor and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen have so far seemed confident a special session will not be needed to hammer out the reform legislation.

“I have tickets to the U.S. Open and I’m going,” Seliger joked Monday. “For at least a day.”

Read related Tribune coverage

Aliyya Swaby contributed reporting.

Disclosure: The Texas Taxpayers and Research Association 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: SHANNON NAJMABADI AND EMMA PLATOFF – The Texas Tribune

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

Texas House Map Must be Redrawn, Federal Court Says

Parts of the Texas House map must be redrawn ahead of the 2018 elections because lawmakers intentionally discriminated against minorities in crafting several legislative districts, federal judges ruled on Thursday.

A three-judge panel in San Antonio unanimously ruled that Texas must address violations that could affect the configuration of House districts in four counties, where lawmakers diluted the strength of voters of color.  In some cases, the court found mapdrawers intentionally undercut minority voting power “to ensure Anglo control” of legislative districts. 

These are the nine districts the court flagged:

Adjusting those boundaries could have a ripple effect on other races.

The 83-page decision was the latest twist in a six-year-legal battle. The judges had already ruled that the Texas Legislature intentionally sought to weaken the strength of Latino and black voters while drawing the House map in 2011. 

But the 2011 map never actually took effect because the court drew temporary maps ahead of the 2012 elections. State lawmakers formally adopted the map in 2013 with few changes. Texas has used that map for the past three election cycles.

In adopting the 2013 map, the court ruled on Thursday that lawmakers “purposefully maintained the intentional discrimination” found in the previous map.

The ruling came the week after the same court invalidated two Texas congressional districts — CD 27, represented by Republican Blake Farenthold of Corpus Christi, and CD 35, represented by Democrat Lloyd Doggett of Austin — and ruled that intentional discrimination against voters of color required those districts to be redrawn.

In both the congressional and state House rulings, the court ordered Attorney General Ken Paxton to signal whether the Legislature would take up redistricting to fix violations in the maps.

But so far, state leaders have signaled they have no appetite to call lawmakers back to Austin over mapmaking. Instead, Texas is looking to the U.S. Supreme Court to keep its political boundaries intact.

“The judges held that maps they themselves adopted violate the law,” Paxton said in a Thursday statement. “Needless to say, we will appeal.”

Meanwhile, the state and the parties that sued over the congressional districts are scheduled to return to court on Sept. 5 to begin redrawing the congressional map. In its Thursday ruling, the court indicated they should be prepared to also meet on Sept. 6 to consider changes to the state House map.

“Today’s ruling once again found that Texas racially gerrymandered its voting districts and used Latino voters as pawns in doing so,” said Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who is representing plaintiffs in the case. “With the 2018 election cycle fast approaching, it’s time for Texas to stop discriminating against Latino voters and agree to a remedy that will provide equal opportunity to all.”

Thursday’s ruling was largely a win for MALDEF and other minority rights groups that sued the state, and it marks Paxton’s fourth voting rights loss in nine days. That includes the Congressional map ruling, a ruling that tossed out the state’s new voter identification law and another ruling that a state restriction on language interpreters at the polls violates the Voting Rights Act.

An open question is whether judges will approve new boundaries without delaying the March 2018 primaries. A delay could further shake up some races, with echoes of 2012, when Ted Cruz scored an upset victory, thanks in part to primaries delayed by legal wrangling.

Local elections administrators say they need clarity by October to meet deadlines for sending out voter registration cards, and December is the filing deadline for candidates.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • A barrage of court rulings has forced Texas leaders to confront whether they strayed too far in enacting voting laws found to have disproportionately burdened minorities. [Full story]
  • Federal judges have invalidated two of Texas’ 36 congressional districts, setting up a scramble to redraw them ahead of the 2018 elections. [Full story]
  • The outcome of a voting rights fight over Pasadena Hispanics’ right to choose their city council members could reverberate beyond the city limits of this Houston suburb. [Full story]

Author:  ALEXA URA AND JIM MALEWITZ – The Texas Tribune

Gov. Abbott Slams House, Doesn’t Rule Out Second Special Session

Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday put blame on the House — particularly Speaker Joe Straus — for the shortcomings of the special session and left the door open to calling another one.

“I’m disappointed that all 20 items that I put on the agenda did not receive the up-or-down vote that I wanted but more importantly that the constituents of these members deserved,” Abbott said in a KTRH radio interview. “They had plenty of time to consider all of these items, and the voters of the state of Texas deserved to know where their legislators stood on these issues.”

The comments came the morning after lawmakers closed out the special session without taking action on Abbott’s No. 1 issue, property tax reform. Abbott ended up seeing legislation get sent to his desk that addressed half his agenda. 

As the Senate prepared to adjourn Tuesday night, some senators said they wanted Abbott to call them back for another special session on property taxes. Asked about that possibility Wednesday, the governor said “all options are always on the table.”

“There is a deep divide between the House and Senate on these important issues,” Abbott said in the interview. “So I’m going to be making decisions later on about whether we call another special session, but in the meantime, what we must do is we need to all work to get more support for these priorities and to eliminate or try to dissolve the difference between the House and the Senate on these issues so we can get at a minimum an up-or-down vote on these issues or to pass it.”

In the interview, Abbott contrasted the House with the Senate, which moved quickly to pass all but two items on his agenda. The lower chamber started the special session by “dilly-dallying,” Abbott said, and focused on issues that had “nothing to do whatsoever” with his call. 

Asked if he assigned blame to Straus, a San Antonio Republican, Abbott replied, “Well, of course.”

Straus was very open in his opposition to at least one item on Abbott’s call: a “bathroom bill” that would regulate which restrooms transgender Texans can use. Its failure during the regular session was one of the reasons Abbott called an overtime round. Just as during the regular session, the House never took a vote on a “bathroom bill” during the special session.

“The speaker made very clear that he opposed this bill and he would never allow a vote to be taken on it,” Abbott said. “He told me that in the regular session. And he told me during the regular session that if this came up during the special session, he would not allow a vote on it, and there’s no evidence whatsoever that he’s going to change his mind on it, and that’s why elections matter.”

A Straus spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • The Texas Legislature closed out the special session Tuesday night amid a stalemate on property tax reform, leaving unfinished Gov. Greg Abbott’s top priority. [Full story]

ibility Wednesday, the governor said “all options are always on the table.”

 

Author:  PATRICK SVITEK – The Texas Tribune

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