Friday, April 29, 2005

Public Ed Happy Hour

The Senate Education Committee is about to meet to take another whack at passing a school finance bill. The committee crashed and burned on its first attempt to pass House Bill 2 last night. Palestine Republican Todd Staples and several other rural lawmakers want more money for rural school districts. That's proving problematic since there isn't much extra cash floating around.

Lite Gov. David Dewhurst announced after today's Senate session that progress had been made "within the last hour." He was seen earlier talking with Staples on the dais. Senators are now huddling in Dewhurst's office before the committee meets.

Sen. Florence Shapiro said her committee still has more than 30 amendments to debate on HB 2. They may be there a while. Nothing like a Friday evening spent discussing public school funding and property tax caps. These people simply don't get paid enough.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

A Dramatic Death

House Bill 1348, the campaign finance bill that would clean up some of the worst abuses arising out of the 2002 campaign went down to an ignoble defeat today on the House floor. Supporters of the bill tried to dislodge it from the Elections Committee chaired by Rep. Mary Denny (R- Flower Mound), who herself benefited from the TRMPAC campaign.

The effort to circumvent the committee process died after remarks by Austin Republican Terry Keel, who was a co-signer on the bill but says the motion to force action was "a tool used for partisan gain" to attack Speaker Tom Craddick (R-Midland). Most all the Democratic members of the leadership team voted against the motion to hear the bill, including Rep. Vilma Luna (D-Corpus Christi), Rep. Al Edwards (D-Houston), Rep. Kino Flores (D-Mission), Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston), and Rep. Robert Puente (D-San Antonio).

Another Democrat who is not a member of the leadership team but voted against the bill was Rep. Aaron Pena (D-Edinburgh). Pena was also a co-signer on the bill. He says that his vote was a pragmatic one. "They won't listen to us if it's just partisanship."

Fred Lewis, of the watchdog group Campaigns for People and one of the bill's primary backers, said:

"Craddick killed HB 3488. He did it for two reasons. The first is that lawyers told him it would hurt him and his friends in the civil and criminal investigation. The second is that TAB and Craddick wanted to maintain the corporate money, the corporate whip to keep the members in line. It’s like crack cocaine, they can’t give it up. Craddick never seriously engaged with us. He never wanted it to pass. Craddick wasn’t involved in killing this bill like he wasn’t involved in TRMPAC."

SB 3 Overboard

On April 3, Lite Guv David Dewhurst along with Senate Natural Resources Chairman Ken Armbrister announced a comprehensive water management bill. The bill was the product of long negotiations with everybody from water marketers to environmentalists. Dewhurst made a point of saying that this legislation was of great importance to him and that his designation of it with the low number of Senate Bill 3, showed that it was a priority.
Despite all the fanfare, it seems like the bill is going nowhere fast. Although it has passed out of Armbrister's committee it has yet to be heard on the Senate floor. Furthermore, the House has been, ahem, throwing cold water on the effort.
Asked about its fate today, Rep. Robert Puente (D-San Antonio) who is chairman of the House Natural Resources committee was less than optimistic. "It was filed late," noted Puente. "It was late to come out of committee. It's a very controversial bill with the fees."
Does he think it can be passed this session?
"It's very late, we have a lot of work to do."
To our ears, that's Legislative Speak for "not likely."

What happened to stem cells?

The State Affairs Committee did not meet yesterday and won’t meet again until Monday. But as we witnessed the past three weeks, two big issues unleashed debate over the right to life- stem cells and abortion (mainly, parental consent for minors). But one has to wonder why two contentious issues were handled so differently by the Committee.

The majority of the abortion bills sailed through committee. Yet, bills relating to stem cell research have been left pending. Woolley’s HB 1929 (Rep. Beverley Woolley, R-Houston, and Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso filed HB 1929 to ban human reproductive cloning but ensure that promising stem cell research remains legal in Texas) received all the votes it needed to get out of committee, but was left pending. Rumor has it that word came from above that stem cell legislation wasn’t going to move.

Just a thought- the governor’s election is coming up and Sen. Hutchison, Perry’s likely opponent in the next election, has been very outspoken about her support for stem cell research. If stem cell bills don’t move, then Perry won’t have to take a stance, possibly isolating more moderate Republicans.

Ethics Exodus

The pressure is ratcheting up over ethics legislation to clean up the worst excesses of the 2002 campaign. House Bill 1348 is lodged in the House Elections Committee. Despite having, at one point, 93 sponsors, including 30 Republicans (that would be 17 more than it needs to pass), it isn't moving fast enough to have a chance of becoming a law this session.
This afternoon, it's rumored that Rep. Jim Dunnam (D-Waco) plans to ask to be recognized by Speaker Tom Craddick (R-Midland) for a motion under House rules that would force the committee to vote on the bill. Craddick is officially agnostic on the measure but insiders say the Speaker is 100 percent against because of its potential to dry up money that helps to keep him power.
Interestingly enough, as the issue comes to a head, four of the Republican sponsors on the bill, Warren Chisum (R-Pampa), Joe Driver (R-Garland), Dan Flynn (R-Van), and Charlie Howard (R-Sugar Land) have dropped their names as coauthors.

Fourth Amendment Victory in Senate!

This morning Senate Bills 1195 and 1125 both by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D-McAllen) passed out of the Local and Uncontested Calendar in the Senate. Local and Uncontested is for the bills that don’t require much debate because they don't have opposition. That’s not at all how one would have characterized these bills before this session. Today's passage is an extraordinary achievement the credit for which belongs to Sen. Hinojosa and the Texas ACLU. For comprehensive coverage on the fight to pass this legislation and why it is so desperately needed see the blog by the ACLU's Scott Henson Grits for Breakfast.
SB 1125 takes all drug task forces that don't receive federal money and puts them under the control of the Department of Public Safety. It has the backing of the head of the DPS and the governor. Even more significantly, it takes $.25 cents of every dollar seized by these task forces and puts it toward drug treatment in the county where the asset forfeiture occurred.
SB 1195 forces police officers to get signed permission from a motorist before they can search a motor vehicle unless the officer has probably cause or another legal basis to search the car.
Now, if these bills die this session, the blame will be on the Texas House.

TRMPAC Document of the Day

Our final document on the TRMPAC effort to use U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham to raise money from energy companies for Tom DeLay's effort to capture the Texas Legislature speaks to the TRMPAC role of the man who would be Speaker of the Texas House, Rep. Tom Craddick (R-Midland). (The meeting with Abraham appears never to have happened). When this scandal first started to gain momentum, Craddick's spokesman at the time Bob Richter denied that his boss had very much do with TRMPAC. Subsequent documents have told a different story. This is one of them.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Turner Stands Up to Leadership

Many have criticized Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) for following the leadership on many controversial votes, but today he decided to take a different approach and vote in the opposite direction. HB 1006, which creates limits to ad valorem tax rates of certain taxing units (basically creating revenue caps), was highly supported by Speaker Tom Craddick. The bill was passed by the House today (83 yeas; 62 nays; 0 present, not voting) largely because of the Speaker's rare public support from the Chair. But this situation didn't restrict Turner from sticking to his democratic values and voting against the bill.

Hupp on SB 6 conferees

We stopped by Rep. Suzanna Gratia Hupp's office late this afternoon to see what the Lampasas Republican had to say about the newly named conference committee for Senate Bill 6, the Child Protective Services reform bill. Earlier this afternoon, Speaker Tom Craddick named the five House conferees for the bill. They include Rep. Robert "Rainbow Coalition" Talton, the author of the controversial amendment that bans gays and lesbians from serving as foster parents.

We hear that Talton's amendment angered Hupp and the bill's Senate author, Jane Nelson. Both worked with Democrats to devise compromise legislation. Instead of getting credit for their efforts on a major bill that literally means life or death for many children, Hupp and Nelson have seen much of the media attention focus all week on Talton's amendment.

When we asked about Talton's appointment, Hupp paused and chose her words carefully. "They're a diverse group that represents the will of the House in the passing of that bill," Hupp said. She wouldn't comment further.

Was Craddick sending a stern message to Hupp? Or was it a slap at the Senate, which never seemed to take Talton's amendment seriously?

We know one thing for sure: Talton's presence will liven up those conference committee meetings.

Turner Walks a Thin Line

Rep. Sylvester Turner's (D-Houston) standing in the gay and lesbian community still proves to be a bit rocky after his 'accidental' voting for Rep. Talton's amendment to SB6, which banned gays, lesbians, and bisexuals from becoming foster parents. This week a new approach to discrimination against homosexuals entered the House- HJR6, which adds a constitutional amendment 'providing that marriage in this state consists only of the union between one man and one woman.' Faced with another difficult vote that directly affects the gay and lesbian community, Rep. Turner chose to vote 'present, not voting,' and obstain from taking a position for either side (HJR6 passed the House Monday with 101 yeas, 28 nays, and 8 present, not voting). This decision, however, did not settle well with some gay and lesbian activists. In response, Turner's office has once again received an array of disgruntle phone calls from these individuals- all upset he didn't stand up against the amendment and some accusing him of following the leadership (Turner is the Speaker Pro Tempore- the second highest position in the House).
So why did Turner not stand up for a community that has been the recent target of much 'governmental regulation?' Turner walks a thin line between social conservativism and standing up for gay rights. He has a strong church backing, with conservative African-American church-goers as many of his constituents. While representing this community he felt he couldn't vote against HJR6, but he also stands behind the gay community and has personal concerns about the bill. He voiced many of his concerns during the House debate on Monday, stating that HJR6 was just making a political statement and that the languange was too broad and vague.
But in the end he knew he didn't want to be part of the 100 votes needed to pass HJR6- he simply didn't want to make a difference in the vote. Turner plays a constant balancing act between his leadership position and his constituents, he will surely have more decisions of this nature in the future.

We're On Your Side

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee heard testimony on a bill calling for reform of the Texas juvenile justice system Wednesday. Sen. Chuy Hinojosa, D-McAllen, presented SB 1632, which focuses on reform for the Texas Youth Commission, the state's juvenile corrections agency. TYC is rife with cases of abuse along with other problems such as lengthy stays, high rates of recidivism, and high cost. The commission was created to deal with the most violent and serious juvenile offenders, but the majority of the kids are in for non-violent crime. Hinojosa's bill calls for data reporting to the committee, multi-cultural linguistic training for staff, and the creation of an independent agency to oversee the commission.
Over 30 members of the Texas Coalition Advocating Justice for Juveniles attended the hearing in favor of the bill donning black t-shirts with the words "Education not Incarceration" emblazed across the front. No one spoke against the bill.
Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, assured the coalition that this bill was just the beginning of the committee's efforts at reform for the commission. He says the committee will need to get "out of Austin and into the valley" to conduct research before further legislative steps can be taken, but left open the possibility that this research could be completed and then the issue returned to if there is a special session.
"I think you have a lot of support among committee members," says Whitmire, the lone committee member present to hear testimony from supporters of the bill, after pulling one of the groups signature black t-shirts over his suit.

Taxes or Tolls

HB 1964 by Rep. Dukes will be heard at the House Ways and Means Committee hearing taking place this afternoon. The bill would allow certain counties to levy a local gas tax at a rate of three to ten cents per gallon, and the proceeds of the tax would be used by the Regional Mobility Authority (RMA) for transportation purposes.

The bill gives the County Commissioners’ Court the ability to hold elections in which voters could vote whether to opt for a local gas tax or tolls from toll roads that would go to funding transportation projects. According to one of Rep. Duke’s staffers, the bill only allows for an election- it would not apply the tax itself.

HB 1964 is the result of substantial and unremitting public opposition to proposed expansion of toll roads in Texas. Resistance to tolls spawned groups like the Austin Toll Party who have rallied against the tolling of existing roads.

It will be interesting to watch this bill because up until now, the Regional Mobility Authority has had little accountability to public opinion regarding the use of tax payer dollars for the funding of transportation projects. This bill would essentially give voters more control over local projects.
The Austin Toll Party backs this piece of legislation. Toll Party member Sal Costello says they support this bill because it allows the community to have a debate regarding this issue.

Ironically, Rep. Mike Krusee carried a similar bill in the 2003 Legislature. (Rep. Krusee authored HB 3588, the Omnibus Transportation bill forcing toll roads on local highways across Texas) The bill died. Several legislators have said a local-option gas tax has never become law because the state Transportation Department does not want to relinquish control of those gas-tax dollars. But for now, we can only wait and see.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

TRMPAC Document of the Day

Nine days after the first e-mail attempt to arrange a meeting with potential TRMPAC energy company campaign donors and the U.S. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham, TRMPAC Executive Director John Colyandro sent the following e-mail to TRMPAC corporate fundraiser Warren RoBold. (The meeting appears never to have occurred.)

It seems like only yesterday that U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Sugar Land) was insisting that his was only an advisory role in TRMPAC. Funny how things change...

Way to Go, Al

All the dailies missed what was perhaps the most condemning comment at Monday's debate over Rep. Warren Chisum's gay marriage amendment. (A brief mention can be found at Burnt Orange Report). Our favorite Democrat Al Edwards of Houston, one of the Ds who voted in favor of the amendment (see post below), made it very clear what his opinion of homosexuality is.
Following an impassioned speech by fellow Houston Democrat Senfronia Thompson reminding the House what protecting the sanctity of marriage meant 50 years ago in Texas - lynching blacks involved in interracial marriages - Edwards approached the mic and espoused this gem in response:
"I take offense when people associate me and my race and my culture with a
social ill. I don't see how the two relate to each other. I just wanted to make
that clear."

Monday, April 25, 2005

They Couldn't Have Done It Without Them

The constitutional ammendment banning gay marriage, HJR6, narrowly passed the House Monday afternoon with 101 votes, needing 100 to pass.
All republicans and many democrats voted for the bill. At least three of those democrats, Rep. Al Edwards (Houston), Rep. Juan Escobar (Kingsville), and Rep. Chente Quintanilla (Tornillo), are in safe districts where over 60 percent of their constituents voted democratic in the 2002 General Election. If two of those Reps. had voted against the bill, it could have been killed. And once a constitutional ammendment is voted down, it can't be brought to the floor again.

TRMPAC Document of the Day

Today's document features another e-mail from John Colyandro, former executive director of TRMPAC and current executive director of the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute to TRMPAC corporate fundraiser Warren RoBold. The e-mail also went to Kevin Brannon, a local political consultant and Jim Ellis, director of Tom DeLay's Americans for a Republican Majority (ARMPAC) and DeLay's point man in Texas.

The e-mail concerns an attempt to get Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham to attend a TRMPAC event where energy industry executives would be asked to contribute to the PAC. It appears the meeting never occurred but in keeping with the tenor of the times, the U.S. House passed an energy bill last week that critics charge does little for energy independence or conservation and whole lot for industry. Hard to imagine how that happened...

Senate's Legislative Logjam

It's not unusual for the House and the Senate to squabble over legislation like kids bickering over the last piece of meatloaf. This session, though, it's getting especially bad.

We confirmed this morning that, with five weeks left in the session, the Senate hasn't yet passed a single House bill. By contrast, the House has given the OK to 14 Senate bills (the governor has signed three of them). Why the shutout? Could be that Lt. Gov. Dewhurst and Co. in the upper chamber are a little tired of hearing all about how the Speaker and the House kicked the Senate's you-know-what in negotiations at the end of last session. Holding up House bills could provide the Senate a firmer negotiating position when it comes time for serious horse-trading.

Some major legislation is stalled in a House-Senate stare down, including the overhaul of the workers' compensation system.

Friday, April 22, 2005

More Asbestos

State Affairs adjourned until 30 minutes after the regular Senate session ends. They will hear more testimony and could pass the bill out after that. Could this be on a fast track and what does it mean? Stay tuned.

TRMPAC Document of the Day

We know Republicans hate gambling something fierce.

So this Texans for a Republican Majority e-mail from John Colyandro, former TRMPAC executive director and current executive director of the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute, to TRMPAC corporate fundraiser Warren Robold on July 12, 2002 raises a few questions.



Since both men are under criminal indictment for their roles in the 2002 campaign, we might have to wait a bit for clarification on the "post-election project." But John or Warren, feel free to call in to the Observer and explain, if you want.

Asbestos On!

Right now in Senate State Affairs Sen. Kyle Janek (R-Houston) is laying out a substitute to SB 15, the Asbestos tort reform bill. This bill failed last session because there were not enough votes in the Senate to bring it up. The sticking point for the tort reform crowd was Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas). Janek says that they have made a number of compromises to make the bill more palatable to its critics. But the fact that the bill is now moving again might indicate that Texans for Lawsuit Reform, which has been working this bill hard all session long could have found their vote. Chairman Sen. Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock) said the committee will not vote on the bill today.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

An 'AYE' Speaks a Thousand Words

Sometimes you just can't trust your colleagues to correctly take care of business for you. This is a lesson Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) learned the hard way on Tuesday when he asked a colleague on the House floor to vote for him while he was attending a Conference Committee meeting (a practice quite common for Representatives with important business to handle during long House debates). Unfortunately for Turner, however, the colleague designated Turner's vote as an 'aye' for a controversial amendment to SB 6 in which he would have voted 'nay.' The amendment, by Rep. Robert E. Talton (R-Pasadena), bans gays, lesbians, and bisexuals from becoming foster parents. Though it was passed by the House with a 81-58 vote into the lengthy Child Protective Services reform bill (see "Talton Goes After Gays in SB6," TXLO, April 19) and Turner's vote wouldn't have changed that outcome, he has still received a bombard of disgruntle phone calls about this issue.
Calls from disappointed constituents, curious politicians, and outraged gay and lesbian organizations have swarmed his office the past few days. Turner is known for supporting the gay and lesbian community by promoting legislation that protects their rights, such as laws against discrimination in the work place. Therefore, his vote for this blatant demonstration of discrimination was obviously a shock to many, including Turner. In response to his temporarily tarnished image, his office is rapidly producing a press release that will come out tomorrow to explain the voting confusion, as well as clarify his position on the issue.
"He's pro-kid. He doesn't care about race, creed, or color, just as long as
parents provide an environment that is loving and happy for the child," said
John Guess, Turner's Legislative Aide who suggested the press release idea to
the Representative. "Who are we to deny these kids their home."
While Turner's standing in the gay and lesbian community probably won't be disarrayed for long, he will surely think twice next time he assumes a colleague knows how he intends to vote.

You could replace some lightbulbs, too

Rep. Jim McReynolds (D-Lufkin) on a condom-distribution bill left pending tonight by the Corrections committee:

If this bill passes, I'm gonna go home and say, 'We gave the prisoners of the state of Texas new toilets, telephones, and condoms.'

Students demand attention for Higher Ed

Over 20 students camped out on the University of Texas campus Wednesday night as part of a weeklong effort asking the Legislature to invest more in higher education issues.

"Tuition is increasing at the same time grants and scholarships are decreasing,"
says Alexis Herrera, a UT student. "Everyone should be able to get a college
education. We need to deconstruct these obstacles."

Students were calling for capping increases of tuition and fees, restoration of the Texas Grants program and passage of a campus free speech bill. Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, joined the students on the south lawn of campus Thursday morning. Ellis has been working this session to protect and increase funding for Texas Grants, a finanicial aid program benefiting low-income and minority students.

At 8 a.m Thursday morning, UTPD officers showed up and told the students they would have to take down the tents until 5 p.m. Michael Cowles, another UT student, says the police threatened class B misdemeanors or academic punishments for the students. "I may have to come out here and camp with them if the police keep giving them trouble," Ellis jokes. "And bring my kids."

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

'on the living and the dead'

If you mess with a body, the deed will haunt you. This is not poetic wisdom; it is a thought present in both houses of the Legislature, where some members want the law to do the haunting:

This week, House criminal jurisprudence left pending a bill that would expand definitions of and raise criminal penalties for desecrating a corpse. The outline of juvenile probationary conditions for corpse abuse would be a useful addition to the books, in view of how many Texas kids regularly crouch behind rusty gates to practice resurrections.

And the Senate has placed on its intent calendar SCR 14, which would allow families whose relatives' ashes were lost to sue the University of Texas Medical Branch over its willed-body scandal. State immunity kept these people from a fair chance in court.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Talton Goes After Gays in SB 6

More enlightened legislating from the Texas House this evening. Republican Rep. Robert Talton, the Sage of Pasadena, slipped a little dose of discrimination into the House's debate over Senate Bill 6 that reforms the troubled Child Protective Services department. Talton's amendment requires the state agency managing foster children to ask prospective foster parents if they're homosexual or bisexual. If so, they can't serve as a foster family.

Talton apparently fears that placing foster kids with gay or lesbian couples will surely turn the children into homosexuals. "It's a learned behavior," Talton explained from the front mic. "It's kind of like domestic violence or someone who drinks. There was someone in the family or close to the family who caused that." Good to know Talton ranks gays right up there with wife-beaters and alcoholics. Doesn't he remind you a little of that nutty uncle no one wants to get stuck sitting next to at family events?

Houston Dem Senfronia Thompson asked rhetorically from the back mic, "Do you know that hate is a learned behavior? Do you know that discrimination is a learned behavior?"

Mike Villarreal wondered how the state will investigate someone's sexual orientation? "How are we going to implement Rep. Talton's inquisition?" the San Antonio Democrat said. But Villarreal's effort to gut the amendment was tabled, and the House passed Talton's amendment by an 81-58 vote. For the record, folks, gays and lesbians are just as likely as straight people to be loving parents.

Let the Budgeting Begin

The House Conference Committee met for the first time this morning and discussed an overview of Sen. Steve Ogden's (R-Bryan) SB 1. This General Appropriations bill allocates the State's budget, but distributes these limited funds differently in the Senate and House Substitute versions of this bill. While no decisions were made today, a divide and conquer strategy was devised where two sections of the bill were to be approached first. Article IV(Judiciary) and Article V (Public Safety and Criminal Justice) are scheduled for discussion on Friday.
To assure accomplishment with these areas Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston), of the House Conference Committee, and Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), of the Senate Conference Committee, plan to meet on Thursday to bridge the gap between the Senate and House versions of the bill.
"The Senate spent more than the House (in this bill), so the
question is, will the House move close to the Senate or will the Senate move
close to the House," said Rep. Turner. "Conceptually, the Senate and the House
will both move in the middle."
Both Rep. Turner and Sen. Whitmire want to avoid building new prisons in Texas, so they will be working towards providing adequate funding for programs that help prevent prison over-population, like probation, parole, and rehabilatation programs.
"Our ideologies are very similar in criminal justice," said Turner, "We will probably solve our differences in an hour."
Hopefully the two Houstonians won't overlook key elements in this short time frame and will develop a sensible spending plan for these two imporant areas.

Blowing Smoke

During the ongoing debate on SB 6 reforming Child Protective Services, Rep. David Farabee (D-Wichita Falls) and Rep. Mark Homer (D-Paris) had the following exchange over an amendment that would require CPS workers to report evidence of drug use in the homes they visit.
Homer: So if they saw a bong for example, they'd have to report it?
Farabee (smiling): I'm not familar with that term.
Rep. Farabee for your edification wink, wink.

"They're Like Fire Ants"

The House Environmental Regulation Committee is meeting this morning, currently hearing HB 2886 by Rep. Jim Keffer (R - Eastland). His bill would regulate quarry operators in a 100-mile stretch of the Brazos River that currently operate without permits. Fly-by-night operators are able to lease land from a landowner or just on their own set up a quarry free from pesky government oversight. Witnesses testified that sediment loosened by these operators has severely damaged the environment, turning a once clear stream into the "Brazos Bayou."

One witness testified as to what happens when they get thrown off of one lot and why a permitting process is necessary. "They're like fire ants, they went up and occupied other mines." Some of the operators have been so egregious in their practices that the attorney general has brought lawsuits.

But to Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R - Angleton), this seemed to be evidence that the bill was unnecessary. "So the process is working. You are getting a significant response compared to other people we see in [this committee]," he said. Yes, representative, but suing a couple fire ants does nothing to exterminate the rest.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Costly Accountability

In the wake of a series of corporate financial scandals, including those affecting Enron and WorldCom, the federal Sarbanes-Oxley Act was passed to help restore trust in public companies and safeguard national capital markets. But, heightened accountability and penalty for corporations could mean higher costs for businesses, nonprofits and government, and for Texas tax payers. Today in the House State Affairs Committee, members heard testimony on HB 2842 by Chisum (R-Pampa), one of the bills created to “align Texas law with Sarbanes-Oxley and to insure officers and directors of public interest entities who willfully mislead auditors of those entities are subject to (felony) penalties.” (according to the bill analysis)

Essentially, HB 2842 makes it illegal for directors and executives of public interest entities to lie to auditors. Under this bill, a public interest entity includes financial institutions, insurers, publicly held companies, county hospitals, pension plans, school districts and municipalities.

Although, no one should lie to their auditors without penalty, making this a felony offense would likely increase the costs to a great number of institutions and add to the number of white-collar criminals in state prisons, paid for by Texas tax payers. The recommended sentence for this crime includes incarceration of up to 99 years if the violation resulted in a monetary loss of at least $1,000,000. Considering it costs $150,000 per year/ per person to incarcerate prisoners in Texas, corporate accountability could prove to be quite costly for Texas. Don’t we have sufficient existing laws to discourage malfeasance and bad business practices?

Friday, April 15, 2005

High Hopes

Some pro-choice activists have high hopes that anti-abortion legislation heard in the marathon State Affairs Committee meeting Wednesday, April 13th, will be rejected. According to Kae McLaughlin, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, even the Republican supporters of anti-abortion and anti-choice legislation “were holding their noses before it was all over!”

One of many testimonies heard Wednesday highlighted HB 16's (by Corte) discrepancies. NARAL Pro-Choice Texas Political Director Sarah Wheat took the mike and reminded the panel that if in fact Corte's bill was only to allow pharmacists to exempt themselves from abortion, and his legislation had no intention of ever denying a woman birth control or emergency contraception, then there was no need for his bill.

Wheat explained that Texas already has a law that limits abortion to physicians only. According to the Texas Health & Safety Code ( § 245.010(b) Enacted 1985; Last Amended 1997), only a physician licensed by the state may perform an abortion. Rep. Villarreal reasserted Wheat’s claim by saying, "so, if a pharmacist did perform an abortion, they'd be committing a felony offense, right?" McLaughlin believes that inconsistencies like this one will kill the bill before it makes it out of committee. Until then we can only wait and see.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Turner Steers Toll Road Debate

Texas lawmakers love their road projects. This afternoon the House passed Rep. Mike Krusee's (R-Round Rock) somewhat controversial toll road bill, HB 649. The bill removed the toll equity cap (the amount that can be invested in toll roads) of $800 million. That would grant free rein for the Texas Department of Transportation to have unlimited, non- repayable spending on the construction and maintenance of toll roads. Many representatives from rural areas with out toll roads feared this would cut into their transportation funding. But before it left the House, the bill was amended to keep the toll equity cap, but at a higher $1.5 billion.
The amendment, authored by Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston), had bipartisan co-authorship from several other representatives including Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston). Turner squabbled at length with Krusee during the debate. The Houston Democrat felt the amendment was "a reasonable compromise" by creating a larger cap rather than eliminating all caps on toll road spending by TXDOT.
"The amendment made the bill acceptable to me and most of the other members," said Turner.

Too Few Rich, Too Little Sway

According to Texans for Public Justice, 57% of all campaign contributions in 2002 were $25,000 or greater. 76% were $5,000 or greater.

"There is a question of how much good government any one person should be able to buy," testified Tom "Smitty" Smith on San Antonio Dem. Rep. Mike Villarreal's House Bill 1104. The bill caps individual campaign contributions at $100,000 per cycle. Smitty just finished his testimony in the Subcommittee on Campaign Finance chaired by Bryan Hughes. Although Villarreal's bill is clearly meritorious, the crowd here, waiting for testimony on HB 1348, the comprehensive campaingn finance reform by Rep. Craig Eiland (D-Galveston), appears largely unmoved. They know that while Eiland's bill may be a long shot, Villarreal's bill, which would cut off much of the GOP's funding, is a long, long, long shot.

Advertising

GTECH corporation operates the Texas Lottery. No surprise, then, that the company sees money in a House plan to introduce video lottery terminals. (VLTs, like the paper lottery, operate from a central network.) The eagerness showed when a GTECH lobbyist stepped up to testify before House Ways and Means last night. First, he said his words on the VLT bills would be neutral.

"I would state that we would like to be a supplier to the program," he said, "so if that makes me 'for,' I'd be willing to change the form."

His shining hour

"The idea has been there ... The administration has never really liked it. But, I have always felt it has been a revenue stream for money. It does not matter if it's mine or not or has my name, as long as it is the idea and the concept that helps the state of Texas."
- Rep. Kino Flores, quoted in the McAllen Monitor, April 27, 2004

Last special session, Rep. Jim Pitts (R-Waxahachie) proposed the first gambling plan in the House to get attention. Though Rep. Kino Flores (D-Mission) had pushed for slots at racetracks for years, his bills waited in committee while Pitts put a 177-page amendment before the House Select Committee on Public School Finance. Things were different in yesterday's House Ways and Means hearing. Flores laid out his House Bill 9 with a flourish, then strutted in and out through the night. He sat sometimes next to Rep. Beverly Woolley (R-Houston) on the dias, putting on and removing his gold-rimmed glasses and wearing a slight grin. Near midnight, the racetrack lobbyists who spoke for hours thinned out. Suzii Paynter of the Baptist General Convention of Texas was giving some of the first testimony opposed to HB 9 that the committee had heard all night. Flores swaggered through the room and whispered loudly, "She has a hard time making her point."

Clear and Convincing Evidence

Late last night the State Affairs Committee heard testimony regarding the potential impact of one of HB 1212’s provisions, the clear and convincing evidence standard requirement. Current law requires the judge to find by a "preponderance of evidence" that a minor meets the requirements for a bypass. HB 1212 would elevate that standard to "clear and convincing evidence." Professor Albright testified that this standard is a much tougher standard of proof.

Bypasses are granted under the notification act if the minor meets a low threshold of proof and establishes, by a preponderance of the evidence, that she is mature and adequately well informed enough to make the abortion decision without notifying her parents; or that notification is not in her best interest; or that notification might lead to her physical, sexual or emotional abuse.

Rep. King fails to identify what his bill would require for a minor to demonstrate in court to convince a judge of “clear and convincing evidence.” Albright contends the bill would raise the court's factual determination by requiring the minor provide a stronger showing of abuse like a black eye or bruise marks; and it would increase court costs by requiring the court to appoint a guardian ad litem different from the attorney ad litem. If Rep. King wants to convince others that his bill is necessary, maybe he should apply the clear and convincing evidence standard to his own actions.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Injudicious Bypass

After an often ineloquent debate between State Affairs Committee members and Rep. King regarding his HB 1212, shortly before midnight Wednesday Professor Albright from the University of Texas Law School alleviated some of the concern raised from misinterpretations and contradictions in earlier testimony. HB 1212 would require a minor seeking an abortion to obtain a written affidavit of consent from one parent or guardian before she could have an abortion. Albright says the bill is unconstitutional and might not stand up to the challenge. Here are some of her major points:

Absolute Veto- Current Texas law already requires a minor to notify her parent or guardian of her intention to have an abortion. Parental notification is not considered an undue burden under the law, but a parent cannot have an absolute veto. (Earlier this evening Rep. King misspoke saying a parent would have absolute veto).

Expedition Process-this is why we have 2-day procedure. An abortion is a very time sensitive matter. Often women don’t know that they are pregnant for sometime, and prolonging the time they have to wait to get the bypass means a 1st trimester abortion could become a 2nd trimester abortion. HB 1212 would increase the number of days the court had to hold a hearing from two to five—further delaying the procedure.

Confidentiality- the Supreme Court has said it is extremely important that a minor maintains anonymity in judicial procedures to protect the interest of the minor. Current law allows a minor to apply for a judicial bypass in any Texas county. Rep. King wants to require a minor to apply for a bypass in her home county or an adjoining county.

Corte Plays Dumb

When all else fails, just play stupid! That was ostensibly Rep. Frank Corte’s game plan this morning during the House State Affairs Committee hearing on HB 16. At today’s meeting, Corte claimed when he filed HB 16 he had no expectation that it would be so controversial. Of course not, abortion is never a controversial issue! So, as any good politician would do, Corte decided to file a clean-up substitute bill.

The original bill amends state law allowing pharmacists to refuse to participate in abortion procedures, and defines “emergency contraception” as any prescription drug “containing an elevated dose of hormones that is used to prevent pregnancy.” The substitute to HB 16 would remove the language "emergency contraception" and amend the bill to, in Corte’s words, “merely add pharmacists and physician assistants to a list of medical personnel allowed to object to the participation in the termination of life.” He says Chapter 103 in the occupation code already awards employees of hospitals or health facilities this right.

“It is regrettable that the original bill made reference to emergency contraception.... It has never been my intention that objections be used for any procedure for the prevention of pregnancy. Some pharmacists may have legitimate objections to filling birth control prescriptions, and I sympathize with them. But this bill is not a solution for their issue. I only intended to give pharmacists the same right to object to participating in pregnancy termination that other medical personnel have.”

But Rep. Corte has left one vital question unanswered. In order to define “prevention of pregnancy” or “termination of life” we must first have a consensus as to what constitutes the beginning of life. Oh, maybe he misjudged the importance of this too.

Ratcheting Up the Pressure

The House Democratic Caucus announced this morning that all of its members have signed on to House Bill 1348 which would clean up some of the worst excesses from the GOP corporate money campaign of 2002. The watchdog group Campaigns for People is promoting the legislation and has put out a good analysis of the bill. Among the highlights: It will give a sharper definition to what constitutes an administrative expense for which corporate money can be used. (Tom DeLay's Texans for a Republican Majority called polling, phone banks, and candidate support "administrative.") It also eliminates sham issues ads that pretend to be about educating voters but are really "sleazy last minute attack ads," as Rep. Pete Gallego (D-Alpine) called them. Gallego played for the press an example of a radio ad put out by Americans for Job Security, a group connected to Gov. Rick Perry that slimed Rep. Tommy Merritt (R-Longview).

Besides the Dems, the bill also boasts 30 Republican co-signers. Many of them know that the votes they took earlier this session on the school finance bill HB 2 could come back to haunt them as "issue ads" in the primary. Just because the bill has 93 co-sponsors, 17 more votes than it needs to pass, doesn't mean Speaker Tom "fingerprints all over the 2002 scandal" Craddick (R-Midland) will let it get a hearing on the floor. "Time is becoming a concern," said Rep. Craig Eiland (D-Galveston), one of the original authors. "If it doesn't start moving soon and fast, the invisible hand of government can kill it."

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Frosting on Appraisal Caps

Freshman David Leibowitz (D-San Antonio) got downright poetic during the appraisal cap debate on the House floor this afternoon. In urging his colleagues to vote for the appraisal cap constitutional amendment, Leibowitz bellowed from the front microphone that House members must cap home appraisal increases in order to "break the yoke of slavery that our constituents have around their necks." (We'll leave the slavery-appraisal cap comparison to speak for itself.)

Leibowitz then quoted the poet best known for his writing on appraisal caps, Robert Frost. He read the last lines of The Road Not Taken: "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I/I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference." Not that much of a difference, though. The House killed the caps 81-65.

House Kills Appraisal Caps

We hadn't been following the squabbling over appraisal caps all that closely before today. Let's be honest, "appraisal caps" just sounds like a snoozer. But this afternoon's House floor fight over Houston Republican Dwayne Bohac's constitutional amendment was thrilling political theater. It was also the latest sign that the House is much less predictable this session. The constitutional amendment, HJR 35, would cap annual increases on home appraisals at 10 percent. Here's a Houston Chronicle story that explains the issue and the politics behind it. The short, short version: homeowners want it; local government folks hate it.

The way we hear it, Gov. Rick Perry and the House leadership were twisting House members' arms all week to support HJR 35. But on the key vote (on San Antonio Dem Mike Villareal's amendment that gutted the bill), Gov. Perry and the leadership went down 81-65. Ouch. A slew of Republicans joined most Democrats in supporting Villarreal's poison pill amendment that removed the bill's enabling clause. As always, Quorum Report has some nitty-gritty details.

Before the vote on Villarreal's amendment, Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) and Debbie Riddle (R-Houston) pleaded with their colleagues not to "cut off debate" on the bill before the pending amendments were heard. Funny, they didn't seem to mind when the House leadership pulled the plug on more than 200 amendments to the school finance bill during last May's special session. Bonnen said the pending amendments would improve the bill. Republican Carter Casteel shot back, "You can put lipstick and a purse on a pig, but it's still a pig. You can't fix this."

Industry Hacks

Sometimes I wonder how certain people can look at themselves in the mirror in the morning. Take for example, the oompa-loompas that were escorted out of their cages this afternoon to shill for the chemical and mining industry in the Senate Natural Resources Committee hearing.

The committee was hearing testimony on SB 667 by Sen. Shapleigh (D-El Paso). The senator testified that ASARCO, a company that operates lead smelters in the El Paso area, has an $80 million clean-up on its hands. There is a dangerously high concentration of lead in the soil apparently due to its business practices.

Before granting ASARCO a new permit, Shapleigh wants financial proof that Asarco can make good on the clean-up. He also wants the same to apply to other companies that produce waste that may harm the environment, which is the essence of his bill.

Among the oompa-loompas trotted out to oppose the bill was Jon Fisher of the Texas Chemical Council. He said that while he didn't approve of Asarco's behavior, this bill would punish companies that haven't done anything wrong. "Generalizing based on one example isn’t good for public policy," he said when he disagreed with the senator.

Both Sen. Shapleigh and Fisher agreed that the ASARCO case was lamentable and that such contamination should be prevented in the future. Showing off his fluency in double-speak Fisher added, "I agree that lessons learned should be applied forward."

Does that mean the Chem Council will be supporting the bill?

Don't bet on it.