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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

Texas Legislature Ends Special Session Without Passing Property Tax Measure

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.

Hours earlier, the House abruptly adjourned sine die – the formal designation meaning the end of a session – after advancing a school finance compromise to Abbott’s desk but declining to further negotiate on a key property tax proposal. When the Senate returned later in the night, it rejected the only remaining option to get the bill across the finish line, which was to accept the House’s version.

“We are not going to accept the take-it-or-leave it proposal from the House, and we are going to fight another day,” said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, the Houston Republican who had authored the property tax bill. “I hope the governor calls us back as soon as possible.”

It was a disappointing end for Abbott’s No. 1 issue, but the governor appeared pleased with the results of the special session. There was no immediate indication of whether he was open to calling another special session to keep trying on property tax reform.

“Our office believes this special session has produced a far better Texas than before,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman said in a statement.

Abbott called lawmakers back for for the special session on July 18. Special sessions can last for up to 30 days, which gave both chambers until Wednesday to work.

Abbott ended up getting half his ambitious 20-item agenda to the finish line. The list of achievements included the must-pass “sunset” bills that will keep some state agencies from closing as well as proposals to crack down on mail-in ballot fraud, extend the life of maternal mortality task force, reform the municipal annexation process, limit local ordinance regulating trees and impose new restrictions on abortion.

At a news conference after the Senate adjourned, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick also said he was proud of the Legislature’s accomplishments during the special session.

But Patrick’s tone quickly darkened when he turned to what was left undone.

He placed the blame for almost all of Abbott’s failed special session priorities on Speaker of the House Joe Straus.

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

Patrick said the San Antonio Republican had treated the governor’s agenda “like horse manure,” blocking votes on measures like the “bathroom bill,” private school vouchers and defunding Planned Parenthood.

“We missed some major opportunities, but what I’m most upset about is the House quit tonight,” he said. “With 27 hours to go, they walked off the job.”

Straus came out with a statement of his own on Tuesday night, saying, “I’m proud of our House Members who worked diligently i the special session, passing legislation that was in the best interest of all Texans. The House was thoughtful, respectful and decisive in its solution-oriented approach.”

The House’s abrupt adjournment came after days of difficult negotiations with the Senate on school finance and property tax bills.

House Ways and Means Chairman Dennis Bonnen had been expected to appoint members to a conference committee Tuesday so the two chambers could reconcile their versions of the bill.

But instead, shortly before the surprise motion to sine die, the Angleton Republican made an announcement.

“I have been working with members of the Senate for several days on SB 1, we have made our efforts, so I don’t want there to be in any way a suggestion that we have not, will not, would not work with the Senate on such an important issue,” he said.

Then he said he had not appointed a conference committee because he was “trying to keep the bill alive.”

“If we appointed conferees now, it would kill the bill because there is not enough time,” he said, explaining that under House rules, there would not be enough time left in the session to issue a conference committee report and have the chamber vote on it.

Bonnen’s announcement came after a vote on a school finance measure in which House members expressed deep disappointment —and  anger — that the bill they had sent to the Senate had come back largely stripped provisions the chamber had fought to keep, including reducing $1.8 billion in funding for schools to only $352 million.

“I’d tell the Senate to take back this crap and fix it,” said state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, adding that she did not like “being bullied.” The House ultimately approved the changes to the bill, sending it to the governor’s desk.

While House lawmakers didn’t get their way with school finance, by adjourning Tuesday night, they forced the Senate to either accept their version of the property tax bill or let it die.  A key point of contention between the chambers: whether the the threshold requiring voter approval of property tax increases should be at the 6 percent preferred by the House or the 4 percent preferred by the Senate.

Some conservatives, including Patrick, have claimed an automatic election trigger would drive down property taxes. But such elections would only happen when taxes rise.

Bonnen and other House members repeatedly said the automatic elections would not drive down taxes. They also said transparency provisions that existed in at least two bills sitting in the upper chamber Tuesday would have made it more clear to homeowners which local government entities were behind rising tax bills.

And while the Senate focused on what increase should require voter approval, the House debated and passed far more bills during the special. That included legislation that would have lowered property tax payments for some Texans, including the elderly, disabled and military members.

So far at least two other Senate Republicans, Don Huffines of Dallas and Brandon Creighton of Conroe, have joined Bettencourt in calling for a second special session on property taxes. Patrick, at the post-adjournment news conference, said he would leave it up to the governor to decide.

Both Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Abbott have said property tax reform is their top priority for the session. At the time the House adjourned sine die, Abbott was on track to claim victory on nine of the 20 items he had put on the special session call. As of Tuesday afternoon, he had signed five of them into law, and four more were on their way to his desk.

Patrick forced the special session by holding hostage a bill needed to prevent the shuttering of some state agencies during the regular session in May. At the time, he said he was doing so in order to push the House to move on two pieces of legislation: one that would regulate bathroom use for transgender Texans and another that would set new thresholds for when cities and counties must get voter approval for their property tax rates.

Just as during the regular session, the House never took a vote on a “bathroom bill” during the special session.

Brandon Formby, Emma Platoff and Shannon Najmabadi contributed reporting to this story.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • The Texas House voted Tuesday to swallow a bitter pill and accept a version of a school finance bill that had $1.5 billion less in funding for schools than the lower chamber initially approved. [Full story]
  • Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar on Tuesday delivered some welcome news to weary state lawmakers: Their coffers should be richer than he previously anticipated. [Full story]
  • House and Senate negotiators will have the next two days remaining in the current special legislative session to hammer out their differences on legislation tackling property taxes, school finance and other items still in play. [Full story]

Author:  MORGAN SMITH AND PATRICK SVITEK

Texas House Approves Sending First Two Special Session Bills to Governor

The Texas House tentatively approved two bills Thursday that will keep several state agencies from closing, including the Texas Medical Board. If the chamber gives the measures final approval on Friday, they could be the first bills of the special session sent to Gov. Greg Abbott‘s desk.

The “sunset” bills lawmakers debated Monday were what forced Abbott to call the Legislature back for a summer special session, after the Legislature failed to pass legislation that would keep the agencies open during the regular legislative session that ended in May.

“With this, everything sunset is to the governor,” state Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, said as he laid out the legislation.

More than 150 state agencies are subject to a review by the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission every dozen years. The Commission sends its reports to the Legislature. If the Legislature fails to extend the life of an agency — as it did during the regular session with the Texas Medical Board, Texas State Board of Social Worker Examiners, Texas State Board of Examiners of Marriage and Family Therapists, Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists and the Texas State Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors — the agency could be forced to shut down.

Legislators in both the House and Senate agreed during the regular session that the agencies needed to be extended but disagreed on how and when to do so.

Senate Bill 20, which passed the House Thursday on a voice vote after no debate, keeps those five Texas agencies open for another two years. Senate Bill 60, which also quickly cleared the lower chamber by a voice vote, repeals a rider in the budget passed during the regular session that would have prohibited funding for the agencies because lawmakers didn’t pass the related “sunset” bills as expected.

During a special session, the Legislature can only tackle issues related to the items the governor puts on the special session agenda. Along with passing the “sunset” bills, Abbott ultimately added 19 other items to his special session agenda, including property tax legislation, school finance measures and a “bathroom bill” that would restrict the bathrooms some transgender people could use.

The special session began on July 18 and must end by Aug. 16, 30 days after it began.

Alex Samuels contributed to this report.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Several must-pass sunset bills didn’t make it to the governor’s desk. We’ve compiled an overview of what it could mean for the state if these agencies are not reauthorized. [Full story]
  • Here’s where lawmakers are on the 20 issues Gov. Greg Abbott asked them to tackle. [Full story]
  • A bipartisan group of lawmakers have called on Gov. Greg Abbott to add ethics reform to the agenda of the special session. The governor’s office attacked the effort as “showboating.” [Full story]

Author:  Kirby Wilson – The Texas Tribune

Analysis: Hopes of Going 20 for 20 in Special Session Circle the Drain

Think Gov. Greg Abbott is still glad he called them back?

The Texas Legislature’s special “20 for 20” session has predictably bogged down. Abbott put together a to-do list tailored to please Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s Senate and, conveniently, to erase any argument that he’s not as conservative as Patrick.

By that scorecard, the governor is going to be fine. If, however, you are the person in your office pool who bet that all 20 items on Abbott’s agenda would find their way into the law books, your cookie has crumbled.

Go shake hands with whoever predicted trouble.

The House and Senate ended this year’s regular session at odds. If anyone attempted to make peace, they did it privately and they failed. The Senate started the July-August special session at full speed. The House has slow-played. Patrick expressed his frustration last week, saying he hadn’t had a serious parlay with House Speaker Joe Straus in months.

That explains the progress they’re making, why the lieutenant governor’s pet project is stalled and why a number of the governor’s other requests are languishing.

Abbott’s troops are getting snippy, too, barking at would-be House ethics reformers via both mainstream and social media. Ethics isn’t on the special session agenda, but a group of Republicans and Democrats asked the governor to add it. One of them, state Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, got Abbott’s goat earlier this year with a proposed ban on pay-for-play appointments, where a governor rewards big political donors with choice spots on state boards and commissions.

An Abbott spokesman called that “showboating.” Straus weighed in, saying the governor ought to add ethics reform to his list. A House committee opened hearings on Larson legislation that had been vetoed by Abbott earlier in the year.

Abbott’s chief campaign adviser, Dave Carney, tweeted that one of the leaders of the ethics effort, Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, was a “hypocrite” for asking for reforms now, after killing a bill this year that would have blocked lawmakers from leaving public service and immediately becoming lobbyists.

It’s not the kind of thing that deserves much attention, except as an illustration of how the Texas legislative machine’s gears are grinding.

Addition is harder than subtraction in legislative arithmetic. That’s why Straus is whomping Patrick on the bathroom bill. It’s easier to kill legislation than to pass it — especially when the public is divided.

Advocates of the “bathroom bill” seemed to have the upper hand during the regular session. Business leaders were slow to rally against it, though they were implored to get involved by Straus and others. The governor didn’t weigh in until late and then backed a version of the bathroom bill that couldn’t clear the opposition in the House. The version that did was too weak for the Senate’s taste.

In the special session, the outside tide appears to have turned. Businesses and other opponents that were quiet earlier in the year have piped up, offering what one called “cover to the weak” in the Legislature. There’s some evidence of that — and of pressure from House leaders — in the number of members who’ve signed on as sponsors of the bathroom bill. In the regular session, 80 of the House’s 150 members were on board. As of last Friday, with a dozen days left in the special session, there were only 49.

That bill hasn’t passed, but neither have bills that probably will pass before the special session is over. Give limits on future local property tax increases — a controversial issue that failed in the regular session — a reasonable chance of success.

What Patrick calls the privacy bill, others call the bathroom bill. An initial slogan for proponents — “no men in women’s bathrooms” — is largely responsible for that. It stuck, like toilet paper to your shoe. It quickly became apparent that this issue splits Republicans in a way that makes it difficult to guide through the Legislature and also useful as a wedge issue in Republican primary elections where social conservatives face social moderates.

Patrick tried to play bully rather than salesman this time, touting his polls on the subject and trying to force the House to do something it was initially reluctant to do. He pushed hard enough to move them from reluctant to resistant to oppositional.

Also, he’s losing: The Senate sped its bill to the House, where it has remained, waiting to be sent to a committee for consideration, for more than a week.

Come election time, each of the three leaders will have a way to brag about the results and rally voters, but only one of them is getting the policy result he really wants. That’s Straus.

That can’t be the result the governor had in mind when he called lawmakers back to Austin.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Texas legislators would love to lower your property taxes, but none of the proposals they’re considering in the special session would do that. [link]
  • Measuring the progress of legislation is easy: This one passed, that one didn’t. Political success in a legislative session is different: A mediocre legislative record can be a victory for all sides. [link]

 

Author:  ROSS RAMSEY – The Texas Tribune

5 Takeaways From the First Half of the Special Session

Gov. Greg Abbott kicked off his first special session two weeks ago. That puts the Legislature at the halfway point if they choose to take the maximum 30 days they are permitted to meet — and given Abbott’s ambitious agenda, it’s looking like they may need all the time they can get.

So far, the special session hasn’t been too different from the 140-day regular session that ended in May. The Senate has rushed to pass nearly all of Abbott’s priorities. The lower chamber has taken its time and even taken some pride in its slower approach.

And the governor has maintained an optimistic tone through it all, even as significant hurdles for his agenda have only become clearer.

Both chambers have addressed the first order of business: passing “sunset” bills that would prevent some state agencies from closing, including the Texas Medical Board. Their failure to agree on such legislation during the regular session was one of the reasons that Abbott called the special session in the first place, and he had specifically asked the Senate to approve the measures before officially expanding his call to include 19 other items.

Here are five things to know about how the first half of the special session has developed:

1. The two chambers are operating at different speeds.

By the eighth day of the special session, the Senate had passed legislation related to all but two of the 20 items on Abbott’s call — a milestone Patrick hailed as unprecedented.

“No one in the Capitol can find anywhere in history that the Senate or the House” has moved that quickly, Patrick said. “It’s quite extraordinary, and I give credit to our Texas senators.”

The House, by contrast, has been taking a much slower approach. While the Senate was celebrating its workload last week, the lower chamber was still working through its first order of business: the “sunset” legislation.

“This is not a race,” Straus has told multiple media outlets, promising the lower chamber would be deliberate in its consideration of each item on the call.

As of Monday evening, the Senate had passed 20 pieces of legislation related to 18 items on Abbott’s call. The House had approved eight bills related to four items.

The Senate still has work to do if it wants to go “20 for 20,” a slogan promoted by Abbott’s office that Patrick and his senators have embraced. The upper chamber has not yet passed legislation to cap local spending or to prevent local governments from changing rules in the middle of construction projects. The bill to address the former, Senate Bill 18, was set to come up on the Senate floor Monday but did not, while the legislation dealing with the latter, Senate Bill 12, remains in the Senate Business & Commerce Committee.

2. The House is charting its own course.

Chafing at the governor’s narrowly proscribed special session agenda on the west side of the Capitol goes beyond House leadership’s vocal opposition to the high-profile “bathroom bill.” Lawmakers there have held hearings on topics not included on the governor’s call, stretched the boundaries of those that are and, in at least one case, directly flouted the governor’s wishes.

During a hearing last week, state Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, put her reasons for pushing for a bill that would reverse millions of dollars in therapy cuts for children with disabilities this way: “If the governor is going to bring us back here to talk about what bathrooms people can use or what we can do with our trees, then surely the disabled kids should take priority, and hopefully we add this to the call.”

Though the proposal is not on the governor’s list of priorities, lawmakers on the appropriations committee approved it 21-0. Since then, state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, has officially asked Abbott to include restoring the funding on the special session call.

Davis, who leads the House committee responsible for investigating wrongdoing in state government, also said last week that she would formally request that Abbott put ethics reform on the special session agenda. She said she plans to hold hearings and vote on all of the ethics bills referred to her committee.

Over at the House Natural Resources Committee, Chairman Lyle Larson, a San Antonio Republican, heard eight bills on water regulation last week, despite Abbott’s veto of five bills containing similar provisions during the regular session.

When they have considered Abbott’s priorities, House lawmakers have tended to put their own stamp on them. On Monday, the chamber approved House Bill 9, the Abbott-endorsed measure continuing the state’s maternal mortality task force — along with three other items giving the task force more guidance on what to study, including the rates of pregnancy-related deaths and postpartum depression among women of varying socioeconomic status, and adding a labor and delivery nurse to the task force’s membership.

Abbott is also unlikely to welcome a bill the chamber passed regulating city ordinances on tree removal last week, which while technically within the bounds of his special session agenda, replicates legislation he vetoed in June for not going far enough. The version of the legislation championed by Abbott, authored by state Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, is stuck in the House Urban Affairs Committee.

The House’s unhurried approach has been met with near daily grumbling on the floor from the 12 lawmakers in the Freedom Caucus, whose conservative members say Straus is deliberately impeding legislation.

“Straus needs to learn you can’t govern by just saying ‘no’ all the time,” said state Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R- Irving. “I’m frustrated that the speaker has chosen to be the sole obstruction to a number of positive reforms supported by our governor and a clear majority of our legislators.”

3. All signs point to another standoff on “bathroom” legislation.

When it comes to divisive legislation regulating the bathroom use of transgender Texans, the House and Senate are veering close to the same spot they were in at the end of the regular legislative session.

The two chambers ended their 140 days at the Capitol at loggerheads over the issue, with House leaders unwilling to back legislation they said would hurt the state economically and target vulnerable children. After unsuccessfully trying to break the stalemate by taking hostage bills needed to prevent the shutdown of a handful of state agencies, Patrick forced the special session.

Halfway toward the deadline to make an agreement on the bill, the differences between the chambers only appear more prominent.

After plowing through an 11-hour committee hearing and an eight hour-floor debate, the Senate gave final approval to its “bathroom” measure just after midnight last Wednesday. The bill would require transgender people to use bathrooms corresponding to the sex listed on their birth certificate or state IDs in schools and buildings overseen by local governments. It would also nix parts of local nondiscrimination ordinances meant to allow transgender residents to use public bathrooms of their choice.

Meanwhile, the House has yet to schedule a committee hearing for similar legislation, and Straus has also held off on referring the Senate’s proposal to a committee for consideration.

State Rep. Byron Cook, the chairman of the committee that the bill must clear to get to the floor, has said he’s disappointed the debate over the bill has wasted so much time — and that it is “smoke-screening” more important issues. But Cook did say the bill will receive a hearing. State Rep. Ron Simmons, the Carrolton Republican carrying the bill, said he believes it will pass the full House if allowed to the floor for a vote. But neither of those statements necessarily adds up to a favorable outcome for the measure in the lower chamber.

Ahead of the special session, Straus said he was “disgusted by all of this” and expressed anxiety about the negative impact such a law could have on transgender children, including possibly an increase in suicides among an already vulnerable population.

Since then, opposition to the bathroom bill has only grown louder in echoing Straus’ concerns. After months of acting through business coalitions, CEOs and top executives for major businesses are attaching their own names to letters expressing hostility toward the legislation, including, on Monday, energy titans Shell and Exxon. Individual school districts have also begun voicing their disapproval of the proposals. Police chiefs from major cities have come out against it and warned they say won’t keep the public safe. And the National Episcopal Church re-emerged in the debate, asking Straus to remain “steadfast” in his opposition to any bathroom bill.

4. Property taxes are at the center of a debate over local control.

In interview after interview, Abbott has made clear he views property tax legislation one of the most important issues — if not the most important issue — lawmakers are taking up during the special session. It may be the only item where Abbott is willing to call lawmakers back to Austin again if they do not show progress on it.

The House and Senate are already closer than they were in the regular session when it comes to coming to an agreement on a proposal to require local governments get voter approval for some increased property tax collections.

But that doesn’t mean the two chambers are completely on the same page. And legislation in the House suggests that its members could be open to giving local officials more breathing room when it comes to how much money they can raise – and how much the state requires them to spend.

Senate Bill 1, which the Senate has already approved, could require cities, counties and some special taxing districts to get voter approval if they want to increase tax collections on existing land and buildings 4 percent compared to the previous year.

House Bill 4 sets the required election threshold at 6 percent. If the full House passes the current version of HB 4, that threshold would be one of many differences the two chambers will have to work out in a conference committee.

Meanwhile, the House Ways and Means Committee has already sent 17 other bills related to property taxes on to the full chamber. The committee has considered 18 others, which are still pending.

Many of those bills show the lower chamber’s members are trying different ways to cut property tax payments for specific groups of property owners including the elderly, Purple Heart recipients, partially disabled military veterans, Texans serving in the armed forces and disabled first responders.

And while many of Abbott’s agenda items for the special session are aimed at limiting local governments’ powers on everything from spending to regulating trees on private property, one House resolution aims to make the state constitutionally responsible for covering a local government’s cost to comply with new laws.

“If the state requires you to provide some service, then the state needs to have the ability to send the resources to accomplish that goal,” said state Rep. Drew Darby, a San Angelo Republican who co-authored House Joint Resolution 31. “The same way the state complains of the federal government requiring unfunded mandates, I think the same principle should apply to the state also.”

The House passed a similar resolution during the regular session, but it went nowhere in the Senate. Still, Rick Thompson with the Texas Association of Counties is hopeful that the measure could end up on a ballot in November.

Thompson is that group’s legislative liaison. He said HJR 31 is a welcome contradiction to other legislation being discussed this summer since many of the bills collectively tell cities and counties what they can and can’t do while they also limit how much money they can raise and spend without voter approval.

“It’s a tough bill to pass because the state obviously counts on being able to balance their budgets on the backs of unfunded mandates,” Thompson said.

5. The governor isn’t sweating his agenda’s fate — yet.

While Abbott started the special session vowing to publish daily lists of lawmakers who oppose his agenda, he has since dialed back the tough talk and sought to play nice with lawmakers, particularly in the House. He finally released his first batch of lists Friday — but only those of legislators who are supporting bills related to each item on the call.

Abbott also has not expressed any concern about the House’s sluggish pace compared to that of the Senate, saying he is pleased with the lower chamber’s speed and believes its members are taking his agenda seriously. In multiple media appearances, Abbott has voiced confidence in his agenda’s chances in the House, predicting the lower chamber will “outperform.”

At the same time, though, Abbott has resisted calls by House members to expand the call.

“The most important thing is we pass the 20 items that I put on the special session agenda,” Abbott told an Austin TV station Wednesday. “Once we get that done, we can consider other matters.”

“We must go 20 for 20 before we address anything else,” he added.

Abbott has also waved off questions about whether he is willing to call a second special session under any circumstances, saying it is too early to speculate. That could change soon, though, as lawmakers have about two weeks left to send measures to Abbott’s desk.

Alexa Ura, Kirby Wilson and Andy Duehren contributed to this report.

Disclosure: Exxon Mobil Corporation and the Texas Association of Counties have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • State Rep. Sarah Davis will ask Gov. Greg Abbott to put ethics reform on the agenda of the ongoing special session and said focusing on ethics would restore trust in the Legislature at time when it’s diminishing. [link]
  • We’re tracking how lawmakers are progressing on each of the 20 issues Abbott has asked lawmakers to tackle over the special session. [link]

Authors:  PATRICK SVITEKMORGAN SMITH AND BRANDON FORMBY – The Texas Tribune

State Senator Rodriguez: Texas Senate Ignored Rules To Push Agenda Through

The Lieutenant Governor sent out a press statement Wednesday bragging about the speed at which the Texas Senate passed a series of bills for his conservative agenda. About the only thing he got right was that a lot of bills passed, quickly.

From the content of most of the bills themselves to the process by which they were passed, the more appropriate terms are “reactionary,” “reckless,” or, “ramming legislation down people’s throats by any means necessary.”

This past week, the Texas Senate, which once prided itself on being known as a great deliberative body, ignored long-standing rules, disregarded the minority opinion, and threw itself into passing divisive primary election fodder, sacrificing good public policy and the democratic process.

We are there to represent all Texans, not just a segment of primary voters of one political party or the other. History shows that when we can not find compromise, then that usually means the proposal is likely bad for Texas.

The Senate rules exist to foster dialogue, compromise, and consensus. No more.

The bills that passed Tuesday and Wednesday include the anti-LGBTQ, anti-business “bathroom bill,” and proposals to harass doctors who perform abortions and their patients, divert public school funding to private schools through a voucher scheme, and curtail the ability of cities and counties to set local priorities – although some small cities and counties were exempted to secure needed rural Republican members’ votes.

The single biggest change illustrating this was a rules change. Previously, it took a two-thirds vote of the Senate to bring a bill to the floor. That forced consensus and compromise that protected the rights of Senators in the minority, typically those from rural areas, and it worked for generations of Texans. In 2015, the two-thirds rule was changed to three-fifths, and with 20 of 31 votes, the Republican majority can pass legislation without any input from the minority.

On the first day of the Special Session, the Senate dispensed with another rule meant to ensure adequate time to prepare for bills scheduled to be heard – Senate Rule 11.19, the “tag” rule. This rule affords any member of the Senate a right to request at least 48 hours written notice of the time and place set for a public hearing on a specific bill.

Instead of following our Senate rules, which provide order and transparency of our proceedings, the Senate voted 20-11, on party lines, to retroactively suspend the rule after I placed a tag on the sunset bill. The tag rule has been suspended a handful of times in the past, but always before a Senator placed a tag on a bill. However, no one in the Senate can remember or knows of an instance when the tag rule was suspended retroactively. It happened again, around 1 a.m. on Thursday, when the Senate retroactively overruled 11 tags that I placed on bills that were set to be heard on Friday morning.

The point of those tags was to give Senators and the public time to study the bills before committee hearings. Notably, the text of several bills wasn’t even available to the public when these committee hearings were scheduled. In legislation, every word and every line matter, especially when some bills, such as the tax rollback bill, can be 100 pages. Holding hearings where public input is limited and then voting within a few days of their introduction undermines major policy decisions.

In fact, the problem with this was evident during the committee hearings that took place. Testimony was limited to people who signed up one hour before or three hours after the hearings began. Because of the condensed period between bill referral and the hearings, both Senators and the public were confused at times about what was actually in the bills being discussed. In some cases, Senators actually admitted the bills were poorly drafted but they were rushing to get them out. Even when the bills were debated on the floor, nearly all of the amendments proposed were summarily rejected.

For example, S.B. 3, made it to the Senate floor with language that prohibited a political subdivision from passing bathroom rules designed “to protect a class of persons from discrimination.” That had to be changed on the Senate floor, because it’s so obviously discriminatory. While I appreciate the light it shines on the true motive behind this legislation, that sloppiness is a byproduct of the rush to pass bills without the deliberation and study that every bill deserves. Frankly, I expect more drafting issues to be uncovered as the bills are further reviewed in the House.

To add insult to injury, the Senate, again along party lines, overruled a point of order called by Sen. Watson that S.B. 3 violated a Constitutional rule that the legislature may only consider subjects on the call during a special session. The Governor’s proclamation did not include any mention of “athletic activities,” which were included in S.B. 3. Amazingly, the reason given for overruling the point of order was that the word “facilities” could be read to include “athletic activities.” This is nonsense!

What the Senate did in the first nine days is not “conservative.”

The conservative thing would be to respect long-standing Senate rules and the Texas Constitution. The conservative thing would be to pass the bills we had to, the Sunset bills, and leave further lawmaking until next session. If we are going to stay and spend considerable taxpayer dollars, the conservative thing to do would be to address issues that truly affect the lives of Texans, like funding public schools.

Texans have made their voices heard, even with the limited opportunity allowed by Senate leadership. The public must continue to do so as the action shifts over to the Texas House, where the voices of all Texans that the Senate refused to listen to must be heard.

***Author – Texas State Senator José Rodríguez

Senator José Rodríguez currently serves as the Chairman of the Texas Senate Democratic Caucus. 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.

Texas Senate Passes Bill to Allow People to Vote on Whether a City can Annex Them

No filibuster was going to kill annexation reform in the Texas Senate this time around.

Among several bills that seek to curb the power of local regulations, the Senate on Wednesday tentatively passed Senate Bill 6, which would allow residents of areas up for possible annexation by cities to hold a referendum on whether the annexation can go through. The bill passed on a vote of 19-12. If it gets final approval from the Senate, it will head to the House. (Update, July 26: The bill received final approval from the Senate Wednesday evening and will advance to the House.)

“Today’s vote is a victory for the property rights of all citizens and I applaud my colleagues in the Senate for giving Texans a voice in the annexation process,” SB 6 author Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, said in a Wednesday release.

Under current law, a city can annex a territory within its extraterritorial jurisdiction without the support of the people who would be annexed. Backers of annexation reform say allowing people to vote on where they live is a fundamental American right. Detractors say allowing citizens to vote on annexation hurts a city’s ability to plan for expansion in a rapidly growing Texas.

The special session legislation is similar to a regular-session bill that died on the Senate floor in an 11th-hour filibuster by Democratic Sen. José Menéndez over concerns that the bill had no protections for land use around military bases.

As the Senate debated SB 6 Wednesday, it was clear neither Menéndez nor Campbell had forgotten the filibuster.

“The last time I yielded to you it did not go quite as I expected,” Campbell said before she gave the floor to Menéndez to ask questions about the legislation.

Just before the vote, Menéndez all but threatened another filibuster.

“We still have plenty of time in the special session,” he said. “Maybe we’ll get down to the last few days, and we’ll get to have a little longer conversation.”

Menéndez’s home city of San Antonio, which in June officially branded itself Military City USA, is home to numerous military bases, and local officials say that without annexation or some similar tool, developers can build within a city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction in a way that might compromise a base’s mission. It’s hard to effectively train sharpshooters with residential apartments next door, they argue.

“Annexation is the only tool that we have to protect those bases,” Menéndez said Wednesday.

But in a fiery floor speech, Campbell said she doesn’t buy the military base argument. She argued that cities have other regulatory tools that allow them to manage development around military bases.

SB 6 made it through the floor vote with just one major change: an amendment by Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, which lowered the population requirement for a county to have its cities be subject to a citizen vote on annexation from 500,000 or more to 125,000 or more.

On Tuesday, the House Urban Affairs Committee heard testimony from city officials on a broad swath of local control issues, including annexation. The mayors of San Antonio, San Marcos, and Plano each denounced proposals similar to SB 6.

John Thomaides, the mayor of San Marcos, said the city was able to successfully lure Amazon to open a facility in the city after it annexed the lot and built infrastructure there.

“This project created more than 3,000 permanent full-time jobs for our residents,” he said. “Without the power to annex we would not have the ability to compete for Amazon.com.”

At the State Affairs Committee hearing Sunday on SB 6, dozens of annexation reform backers lined up to weigh in on why they support the bill. One man compared municipal annexation to the Nazi invasion of France; another compared it to Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. One woman was visibly emotional as she spoke of how new city taxes might stretch her family’s budget too thin.

A few detractors weighed in as well — including city officials from Corpus Christi, Fort Worth, Sugar Land, San Antonio and Austin — who said annexation can be beneficial to cities and citizens alike when done properly.

“We are not the evil empire,” said Joe Zimmerman, the mayor of Sugar Land.

Later Wednesday, the Senate gave final approval to two other local control-related bills. Senate Bill 13 aims to accelerate local building permitting processes in place across the state. It would automatically approve building permits if a city did not approve the permit quickly enough and eliminate a workers’ protection program in Austin. Before it passed, lawmakers made some technical changes to the language of bill on the floor.

The Senate also passed Senate Bill 14, which bars cities and towns from regulating tree removal on private property. State Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, accepted an amendment to limit the scope of the bill to only exempt small, residential properties from local tree ordinances. He also exempted local regulations on weed and grass length from the bill. More than 50 cities and towns in Texas have local tree ordinances, requiring property owners to either pay fees or replant trees if they cut trees down on their property.

Emma Platoff and Andy Duehren contributed to this story.

Author:  KIRBY WILSON – The Texas Tribune

Senate Gives Initial OK to Property Tax Rate Elections in Cities, Counties

Texans could soon have more direct control over the property tax rates that cities, counties and special purpose districts set as legislation that stalled during the state Legislature’s regular session is taken up by both chambers this week.

The Senate in a 19-12 vote on Monday gave preliminary approval to a bill requiring larger cities, counties and taxing districts to have an election if the amount of property tax revenues they collect on existing property and buildings exceeds 4 percent of the amount they took in the year before. Smaller government entities — those that collect less than $20 million in property and sales tax a year — will have to hold an election if revenue collections exceed an 8 percent increase.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt said his controversial Senate Bill 1 is key to “slowing down” rising property tax bills.

“The public knows if there’s a case that’s made from elected officials that they should spend more of their hard-earned money, they will vote for it,” the Houston Republican said Monday night.

Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, successfully amended the bill to allow residents in smaller taxing units that collect less than $20 million in revenues — such as tiny towns or special purpose districts — to lower the property tax collection increase that triggers an automatic election from 8 percent to 4 percent. Texans in such small taxing units would vote to lower that threshold in May.

Bettencourt is optimistic that the Senate and House will agree on how to handle property tax rate elections during the special session. Their inability to do so during the regular session partially prompted Gov. Greg Abbott to call lawmakers back to work this summer.

“What I hope to have happen is a real negotiation,” Bettencourt told The Texas Tribune last week.

During the regular session, a proposed automatic tax rate election provision never made it out of the House Ways and Means Committee that State Rep. Dennis Bonnen chairs. Things could play out differently during the special session. Bonnen, R-Angleton, included an automatic election provision in his companion legislation, House Bill 4. He said a heightened focus on property taxes during the special session could prompt more of his colleagues to back such an election requirement.

“I think it’s going to be a little harder to sit back and not support something,” Bonnen said.

But not everyone shares his optimism. State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, said Monday that he doesn’t think Texas House Speaker Joe Strauswants an automatic election provision to pass even though such a measure is in the House companion bill. HB 4 is among nearly three dozen property tax and appraisal bills that will be considered in that chamber’s Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday.

“I don’t think Straus wants to pass any of them,” Stickland said Monday. “My plan is to keep pushing so we know who is responsible for their death.”

Tea Party-aligned lawmakers and officials, including Stickland, have repeatedly criticized the Republican speaker for how he runs the lower chamber. But Straus spokesman Jason Embry said property tax legislation is a priority for the speaker.

Embry also said the House attempted to lower property taxes in the regular session by putting less of a financial burden on school districts. The lower chamber passed House Bill 21, which sought to increase state education funding by $1.5 billion. The bill died after the Senate lowered that amount and tacked on an amendment that would have would subsidized private school tuition and homeschooling for kids with disabilities.

“School districts collect more than half of the property taxes paid in Texas, and the House is the only body that has acted to address the most significant driver of higher property taxes,” Embry said.

Meanwhile, critics of Bettencourt’s election requirement say it will hamstring local governments’ ability to respond to residents’ demands for services like police and fire personnel, street repairs and timely trash collection. They also point to it as another example of state officials trying to micromanage local governments.

Bill Longley, legislative counsel for the Texas Municipal League, said this weekend at a Senate committee hearing that the legislation would harm local governments’ bottom line while failing to offer Texans substantial savings.

“Taxpayers will not see meaningful relief,” he said. “We’re talking about a very small portion of the city tax bill.”

He also said the biggest driver of property tax increases are from school districts and not cities or counties. Several city and county officials say that lawmakers are using the city and county property tax issue as a way to distract from their practice of spending fewer state dollars on education, which prompts school districts to raise their property tax rates to make up the difference.

“The state’s own budget is based on the largest portion of property taxes — school property taxes — increasing,” Longley said.

Bonnen’s version triggers a vote when increased revenues exceed 5 percent. But Bettencourt isn’t sweating that slight 1-point difference between the two versions. Both lawmakers also opted to separate property tax rate elections and overhauling the property appraisal process in legislation during the special session. They said having more bills to address property taxes increases the chances of legislation passing during the special session.

“It’s just important to have a few vehicles that can be used as necessary because you don’t have time to start the whole process again,” Bettencourt said.

Bonnen said his proposed overhaul of the appraisal and assessment process will make it clear to Texans which government entities are causing tax bills to increase. Bonnen said some local officials don’t lower tax rates to offset property value increases and then blame higher individual tax bills on those rising property values.

“You still have a local elected official making a choice that makes you pay more,” he said.

Bettencourt’s Senate Bills 93 and 96 have provisions that also seek to make it more clear to landowners what tax rates different entities charge and what could trigger an automatic election. Those have yet to make it out of the Senate Select Committee on Government Reform.

That committee, which Bettencourt chairs, heard hours of testimony on property tax legislation Saturday. Bettencourt kicked off the hearing by rolling through a PowerPoint presentation purporting to show soaring property taxes across Texas, citing statistics that some experts have called fuzzy math that takes statistical comparisons out of context.

Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, said his office had received 434 pages of letters from constituents complaining about property taxes, with some saying they were in danger of losing their homes due to rising taxes. Taylor grew emotional as he read excerpts from the letters.

“The purpose of government is to protect our God-given rights, it’s not to tax us out of our homes,” Taylor said.

Some current and former local officials said they supported Bettencourt’s property tax legislation, SB 1. Ron Wright, tax assessor-collector in Tarrant County, said it would offer relief and more transparency to taxpayers. And he dismissed criticism from those who call the bill an assault on local control, citing the ability of citizens to vote on tax increases.

“When they talk about local control, they’re talking about government control,” Wright said of the bill’s critics.

Andy Duehren, Emma Platoff and Shannon Najmabadi contributed to this report.

Disclosure: The Texas Municipal League has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • The lower chamber responded to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s threats of a special session by moving key legislation — but omitting provisions that he wanted included. [link]
  • There’s a simple test to tell you whether the promise of a tax cut is really a tax cut: Is there money in your hand? [link]
  • The Senate voted 18-12 in favor of bill that would require an election if a local government entity wanted to increase some of its tax collections by 5 percent or more. [link]

Author:  BRANDON FORMBY AND JIM MALEWITZ

Texas Senate Moves to Fast-Track Special Session Agenda

On the opening day of the special session of the Texas Legislature on Tuesday, over the cries of Senate Democrats, Lt. Gov.  Dan Patrick  took a step to fast-track two bills reauthorizing the Texas Medical Board and four other state agencies jeopardized by inaction during the regular session.

The Senate must first pass those bills before moving on to other items eligible for consideration, including the legislation championed by Patrick regulating bathroom use for transgender people.

After overruling objections from Democrats, the Republican lieutenant governor referred the bills to committee, which promptly — and  unanimously — approved them.  The full Senate must still vote on the bills, which is expected to happen Wednesday.

Democrats said Patrick’s move limited the public’s ability to weigh in on the legislation, without which, a letter from the Texas Medical Association sent to lawmakers Monday warned, the state’s ability to safely license and discipline physicians would be impeded.

“I would err on the side of making sure that the public did have input on every step of the legislative process,” said state Sen.  Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, during debate on the floor. “We are trying to move the people’s business forward without the people’s input.”

State Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, said the bills were too important to postpone.

“I think delaying and not expeditiously going forward to save these agencies makes little sense and is a waste of taxpayers’ money.”

Gov.  Greg Abbott was forced to call lawmakers back for up to 30 more days to avoid the shutdown of the medical board and four agencies, which became hostages in a war between the House and Senate.

Also caught in the legislative crossfire were agencies that license therapists, psychologists, counselors, and social workers.

Part of Patrick’s play Tuesday included a rare procedural maneuver that involved overriding state Sen.  José Rodríguez’s “tag” on the bills, which would have required 48 hours’ notice for them to be considered in a committee hearing.

According to Senate Democrats, it is a rule practiced in the Senate since at least 1939.

Rodriguez, D-El Paso, accused Patrick of cutting off discussion on important legislation “so that we can talk about what bathroom transgender people should use” in a fiery statement issued after the debate.

In addition to the sunset bill, Abbott also put 19 other items on the special session agenda, including the “bathroom bill,” the topic that inspired the showdown between the House and Senate in the first place.

Patrick has been the fiercest champion of proposals that would regulate bathroom use based on “biological sex,” which would keep most transgender Texans from using bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity.

Procedurally, the Senate — which Patrick has promised will go “20 for 20” in approving the governor’s agenda — must first pass the sunset bills before turning to the other bills.

A House committee is scheduled to take up its version of the legislation Wednesday.

Shannon Najmabadi contributed to this story.

Disclosure: The Texas Medical Association and Texas Hospital Association have been financial supporters of The Texas TribuneA complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • The coming weeks will reveal whether the ongoing hostility between Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus has paralyzed state policymakers as they take up the 20 items on Gov. Greg Abbott’s agenda. [link]

Author:  MORGAN SMITH –  The Texas Tribune

Uncertainty, Deep Tension Mark the End of the 85th Regular Session

Texas’ 85th legislative session has come to an uncertain, rancorous end after a 140-day period that saw the state extend its rightward march and tensions between the two chambers reach new heights — largely because of disagreements within the ruling Republican Party.

Lawmakers gaveled out Monday afternoon — first the House, then the Senate — under a cloud of uncertainty over whether Gov. Greg Abbott would call a special session, which Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has been pushing for to deal with a number of incomplete priorities. Abbott was coy Monday morning, saying he would announce his decision “later in the week” — and making clear that he would be in charge in the event of an overtime round.

“I would normally say, ‘I’ll see you in 18 months,’ God willing,” Patrick told senators as the chamber prepared to adjourn for the last time in the regular session. “But we’ll see you a little sooner than that.”

The final day was also consumed by a scuffle on the House floor that seemed to embody some of the sharpest tensions of the session: State Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, traded accusations with House Democrats after Rinaldi said he called immigration authorities on people in the gallery protesting the state’s new “sanctuary cities” law. The dustup punctuated a session in which Democrats and Republicans alike waged fierce battles over illegal immigration, abortion and LGBT rights.

“This session has been very, very difficult and emotional in many different ways, in many layers, over contentious issues, and there are enough of us here to remember a time in Texas when respect and decorum ruled the day,” state Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, said Monday at a news conference held by House Democrats. “It’s just ironic — my senior members that have been here dozens of years have told me this is the worst session they’ve ever seen.”

Even after both chambers gaveled out Monday afternoon, the fault lines were clearer than ever. Patrick issued a statement that accused the House of killing several of his priorities, including those related to property taxes and bathrooms, which the lieutenant governor said remain “must-pass legislation.” Straus, for his part, issued a statement saying his chamber “feels very good about where we ended up, and now we look forward to returning home.”

The session got underway on Jan. 10 in the shadow of Comptroller Glenn Hegar‘s dour revenue estimate, in part due to the downturn in oil prices, ensuring budget writers had their work cut out for them. For weeks, the two chambers sparred over the best way to balance the budget, with the Senate using an accounting trick to free up $2.5 billion — Straus called it “cooking the books” — and the House turning to the state’s savings account, colloquially known as the Rainy Day Fund.

Budget writers ultimately struck a deal that relied on a bit of both methods.

The session also opened against the backdrop of a new Republican administration in Washington led by President Donald Trump. Texas Republicans were hopeful Trump would provide some relief for a state that spent the last eight years at war with a Democrat-led federal government, but the benefits ultimately appeared to be limited.

On one of the items where Texas Republicans have long sought assistance from the federal government — border security — budget writers maintained the current spending level of $800 million.

That did not mean Trump’s influence was not felt under the pink dome. His hardline stance against illegal immigration dovetailed with Abbott’s push for a ban on “sanctuary cities,” arguably the most rancorous proposal of the session. After the Senate passed the legislation, Senate Bill 4, House leadership sought to water it down, an ultimately unsuccessful endeavor thanks to a polarizing amendment by state Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler.

The amendment allows law enforcement officials to ask the immigration status of anyone they detain — not just those they arrest. Its passage, mainly along party lines, marked something of a coming-out party for the newly formed House Freedom Caucus, a group of 12 conservative lawmakers who spent the session working to advance their priorities through their knowledge of the rules and procedure.

“Our fingerprints are on many pieces of policy,” Schaefer said in an interview earlier this month, “and that’s not by accident.”

The sanctuary cities ban was one of four emergency items Abbott declared in his State of the State address, and he signed it into law weeks before the session concluded. He did so without advance notice on a Sunday evening on Facebook Live, spawning another round of protests against the bill.

While Abbott, Patrick and Straus were generally on the same page regarding SB 4, they were far more splintered on a “bathroom bill” that would require transgender people to use the restroom that matches their birth gender. Patrick charged into the session vowing to fight for it, while Abbott kept his distance and Straus made clear he viewed it as potentially bad for the state’s economy.

There were few big surprises regarding the issue during the first half of session. The Senate approved its bathroom bill, Senate Bill 6, early on and sent it to the House, where it languished amid continued resistance from House leadership. But in April, the House debuted what some had hoped would be an alternative to SB 6, House Bill 2899, and got the governor to break his silence — Abbott called it a “thoughtful proposal.”

Still, HB 2899, which would have invalidated local trans-inclusive policies and school accommodations for transgender students, remained stuck in a House committee — even as it accrued a total of 80 co-authors. The issue wouldn’t show signs of life again until after a remarkable turn of events that began May 11, when the Freedom Caucus, at a boiling point with House leadership, went on a bill-killing spree that claimed what is known as the sunset safety net bill. In the House, the failure of the measure, which keeps some state agencies from shuttering, meant the Senate would have to pass it to avoid a likely special session.

Patrick seized the opportunity, vowing to hold the bill hostage until the House acted on a bathroom bill and property tax reform. Abbott aligned himself with Patrick, calling them priorities in the home stretch — but stopped short of threatening a special session over them.

“It definitely, I think, kind of shifted the balance, so to speak, or shifted the playing field on what was going to get done in the session or whether there was going to be leverage at all for this issue or the property tax issue,” one Freedom Caucus member, state Rep. Matt Krause of Fort Worth, recalled Sunday.

With time running out, the House worked to appease Patrick, passing measures that dealt with the two issues more narrowly than the lieutenant governor had preferred. The period marked the apex of pressure that Patrick had been applying on the House since the session’s early days, hoping to bend it to his chamber’s more conservative will.

“I think Speaker Straus did a terrific  job of being basically the voice of reason in that regard,” state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, said Monday, reflecting on the Senate pressures. The House had its priorities, Zerwas added, “we got them done, and the lieutenant governor had some of his priorities that didn’t really sync up with our leadership here, so you know, I think ultimately that’s how the political process works. I think we got done the things the state, the citizens, expect us to get done.”

In the final days of the regular session, there appeared to be some hope lawmakers could work out a deal to avoid overtime — Abbott sounded optimistic as of Friday morning. But whatever chance there was for compromise seemed to plummet over the weekend, when the chamber leaders held dueling news conferences — twice — to assign blame to the other side for putting lawmakers on the brink of a special session.

By Monday morning, Abbott, known for his aversion to special sessions, was striking a somewhat different tone. Asked at a bill-signing ceremony whether he planned to call lawmakers back to Austin, he raised the possibility for the first time in 140 days. “I’ll be making an announcement later this week,” the governor said.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • In some ways, the standoff over the bathroom bill had been years in the making.
  • Abbott signed a bill Monday morning that allows ride-hailing companies like Uber to return to Austin.

 Author:  PATRICK SVITEK – The Texas Tribune

Legislature Approves Bill Requiring Disclosure of Government Contracts

Elected officials and high-ranking state officials in Texas will soon have to disclose their business relationships with governmental entities.

The new requirement, part of Gov. Greg Abbott’s ethics reform package, was given final approval by the Legislature Sunday. HB 501 won’t take effect for another 18 months, but when it does, state officials who do significant business with cities, counties and other governmental entities will have to disclose the contracts on personal financial statements filed with the Texas Ethics Commission.

Over the years, state politicians doing governmental work have sparked controversy and raised questions about whether they’re using their political influence to cash in or voting on legislative measures that could affect their bottom line. Among the relationships that stirred criticism in the past: Attorney General Ken Paxton’s investment in a company that sells police video recording technology to law enforcement agencies; Sen. Royce West’s work for Dallas County and Dallas schools; and former Sen. Wendy Davis’ legal workfor the North Texas Tollway Authority, the DFW Airport board and other entities. (All have said their contracts presented no conflict of interest.)

The author of the new disclosure legislation in the Texas House, state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, said the bill represented “a humongous leap forward” in government transparency.

“People who file under this are going to have to list more of their interests than they’ve ever had to file before,” Capriglione said. “You’ll be able to dig down and find out which elected officials have government contracts and if that is at all in conflict with the way they’re voting.”

The bill requires elected officials and bureaucrats who file state personal financial statements to report their interest in government contracts valued at $10,000 or more during a calendar year; it also requires legislators who serve as bond lawyers for public entities to list that work on their reports.

Compared to earlier versions, the bill was weakened in two significant respects. It removed a provision that would have required officials to reveal business referral arrangements, including lawyer referrals, on their financial disclosures. It also gives what ethics reform proponents call a “get-out-of-jail-free card,” namely a new provision that allows officials to correct errors or omissions in their reports without fine or sanction as long as the official declares the mistake was made with no intent to mislead and fixes it within two weeks of discovering it.

Craig McDonald, director of the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice, said HB 501 was a “step forward” even as he lamented the inclusion of language that softens already weak enforcement of ethics violations.

“There’s no doubt that the legislators want to do everything they can to get off the hook when they make errors or try to hide their disclosures,” he said.

The House and Senate gave final approve to the bill Sunday. Abbott has until mid-June to sign or veto the measure.

Author:  JAY ROOT – The Texas Tribune

Abbott, Patrick: More Work Needed as Special Session Threat Looms

THE WOODLANDS — With just over a week left in the legislative session — and the threat of a special session looming — Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Sunday said lawmakers still have more work to do.

Abbott was optimistic when asked if legislators will avoid an overtime round, saying things are “looking great,” especially after his office was up past midnight working through issues. But he also said “today will be a key day” — both chambers are convening later today — and suggested the property tax measure the House passed Saturday was not strong enough.

“As you know, I want to see the rate rollback part of property taxes achieved,” Abbott told The Texas Tribune after a bill-signing event here at a church. “And so we still have more work to do on property taxes. The session is not yet over.”

Abbott appeared to be referring to a proposal that would require local governments that want to raise property taxes by 5 percent or more to get voter approval. That proposal, Senate Bill 2, has stalled in the House, which passed a property tax measure Saturday that did not include the rollback provision.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott took turns preaching before signing Senate Bill 24 into law  at Grace Church in The Woodlands on May 21, 2017.  The legislation shields pastors' sermons from government subpoena power. (Photo by Michael Stravato)
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott took turns preaching before signing Senate Bill 24 into law at Grace Church in The Woodlands on May 21, 2017. The legislation shields pastors’ sermons from government subpoena power. (Photo by Michael Stravato)

Patrick has said he is prepared to go to a special session if the House does not act on the property tax issue and some version of a so-called “bathroom bill,” which would restrict transgender people from accessing restrooms in some public places that do not match their gender identity. Abbott, who has the power to call a special session, has said the two items are priorities in the home stretch, but has not gone as far as threatening a special session over them.

As he left the bill-signing ceremony, Patrick declined to comment when asked whether he was happy with the House’s property tax measure, saying he was not discussing issues at this time.

Asked about the possibility of a special session, Patrick held firm, saying: “I want to see bathrooms. I want to see a bathroom bill.”

“I’m willing to stay as long and until the place we’re staying in … freezes over, until we get that bill” passed, Patrick said during the bill-signing ceremony, with Abbott seated behind him.

Abbott’s remarks on property taxes were cheered by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, the Houston Republican who authored SB 2. The bill is on a tight timeline to make it to the House floor ahead of a critical Tuesday deadline.

“Without Senate Bill 2 as passed by the Senate being considered by the full House, there will be no property tax relief coming out of the 85th Regular Session,” Bettencourt said in a statement. “The governor said we still have more work to do on property taxes. I concur with that!”

Author:  PATRICK SVITEK – The Texas Tribune

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