My Christmas list for the Lege

 

Dear honorable Representatives and Senators of the 84th Legislature of the State of Texas:

These are the items I wish to see introduced in the next regular session of the Texas Legislature. Some, I have opined on or suggested in the past. For others, the idea may seem comparably novel. Some of the ideas may appear rather logical common-sense approaches, while still others rather quixotic and far fetched. All in all, I think all these ideas would greatly benefit the people of Texas. There are some ideas, such as expanding Medicaid or recognizing gay marriage, with which I obviously agree with but did not include because they are trite and not original. I will leave those suggestions to the professionals.

  • HB1: A bill to simplify out-of-county voting for public college students.” I have discussed this idea in the past with some detail. Basically, it would allow those students at the state’s largest public colleges (UT-Austin, A&M, UH and Tech) who are from the state’s largest counties (Harris, Dallas, Bexar, Travis, Tarrant, El Paso) to vote early in their home counties at special voting booths erected at their colleges. This would avert the often-uncertain and complicated absentee process for these young students, who are notoriously unreliable in their dedication to voting.
  • HB2: A bill to simplify graduation standards for public college students.” This one should be self-explanatory. The legislature rightly removed asinine core requirements for high school students, now they should do the same for college students. Sorry, UT, but it is a disgusting waste of everyone’s time that I have to take FIVE science classes in order to get a degree in Government. If we remove silly Liberal Arts mumbo jumbo, more students could graduate in as little as two years, saving lots of money and time while still providing the same grand education for degrees.
  • HB3: A bill to raise the gas tax.” I know, ‘raising taxes’ is the third rail of Texas politics, but this is just long overdue. The department of transportation does not have the money it needs to maintain the roads in this growing state. The approval of Proposition 1 last Tuesday was a good step in the right direction, but more needs to be done.
  • HB4: A bill to strengthen the Texas Open Beaches Act.” Reiterating that the beaches of the State of Texas are public parks belonging to, and exclusively to, the people. Not even erosion of the coastline may negate that fact.
  • HB5: A bill to protect the integrity of the death penalty.” This bill would increase the burden of proof for convicting someone of death-qualified capital murder from “beyond a reasonable doubt” to “beyond the shadow of a doubt.” Thus, only in cases where the people are indubitably convinced of guilt may the death penalty be applied.
  • HB6: A bill to abolish ‘environmental zones’ on Texas interstates.” Currently, a regulation exists that lowers the speed limits on Interstates from 75 to 65 in the rural areas immediately outside of Dallas and Houston. Ostensibly, this exists to lower emissions, but no convincing evidence exists that it does not. It should be done away with, and speed limits should only be lowered from 75 when the traffic data would suggest it should.
  • HB7: A bill to repeal the state’s unconstitutional sodomy statute.” This law, which criminalizes gay sex, has not been in force for more than 11 years since the US Supreme Court struck it down. But it’s still on the books, which is a terrible embarrassment for the state. Clean up the books.
  • HB8: A bill to ban corporal punishment in schools.” Most school districts in Texas already ban the barbaric practice, but some do not and still unbelievably beat students. The Legislature should rather expeditiously correct that wrong.
  • HB9: A bill to reduce drug penalties.” This bill would lessen the penalty for possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana to a Class C Misdemeanor. It would also lessen the penalty for possession of trace amounts of cocaine to a Class A Misdemeanor.
  • HB10: A bill to eliminate the statute of limitations on reporting rape.” Wendy Davis proposed this on the campaign trail, I see no reason it should not get bipartisan support.

I might likely still add more ideas, so consider this a work in progress.

Thank You,

Noah M. Horwitz

Abbott’s strange doublespeak

Yesterday, Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican candidate for Governor, released a new 30-second commercial on border security. Ordinarily, this would not be much for news, but a tidbit within the ad caught my attention. Overall, the ad is a garden variety conservative attack on President Barack Obama for apparently not doing enough to manage immigration into this country, while bemoaning the supposed influx of Mexican cartels into this country. I don’t want to really get into the weeds of all that, because it is a very different issues that drew ire from me.

Around the 12-second mark, the ad claims that Abbott would double the budget of the Department of Public Safety. This doesn’t sound that unreasonable, especially considering most of the DPS’ functions involve things like highway patrol and motor vehicle bureaus. The only problem is that the DPS is largely funded out of the State Highway Fund. Since the DPS obviously is different from a highway, the moneys it receives from the fund are considered diversions. And Abbott, in a commercial last month, pledged the end diversions from the fund.

All this begs the question of how Abbott would pay for his projects. Obviously, he — like everyone else in the Republican Party — is pathologically opposed to raising taxes. And yet, drastically expanding money for transportation, public safety and the border, he is proposing a fairly significantly upping of the state’s expenditures. And yet, with no plan to pay for it. I suppose that Abbott could just slash a little more from schools, but at this point he’s writing cheques the State just cannot cash.

Abbott wants to have his cake and eat it too. Sadly, I have not found anyone else around the state that has honed in an this strange doublespeak. The state media has completely abdicated its responsibility to call out bad candidate plans. State Senator Wendy Davis (D-Tarrant County), the Democratic candidate for Governor, rightly received immense derision for her outlandish education plan, which likewise lacked a sensible pricetag. It’s only fair that Abbott should be subjected the same.

On another note, I find it strange that Abbott would be wading into this divisive of an issue, especially without attacking Davis by name. The jab at Obama appeared a little misplaced, especially considering his last Obama-centric ad went well out of its way to connect Davis to him.

VDP hops on the Highway Fund bandwagon

Yesterday, Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican candidate for Governor, released an ad that touted his big plan for improving the state of transportation infrastructure in Texas. After crunching the numbers, I was simply not impressed. Now, the Texas Tribune reports that State Senator Leticia Van de Putte (D-Bexar County), the Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor, has hopped on the bandwagon and is now touting that plan as a cornerstone for her transportation infrastructure (with a few notable difference) platform.

Last night, I noted that such a proposal could likely raise about $1 Billion per biennium, a statistic confirmed by The Dallas Morning News. Of that, the News notes that more than 80% go to law enforcement agencies such as the Department of Public Safety (DPS), while about a dozen million dollars even go to the Attorney General’s office. Accordingly, while transportation would surely be given a great deal of extra cash, it would be at the expense of other –very important– spheres of government expenditures. Thus, unless more money is withdrawn from the rainy day fund or taxes are raised, the hurt will merely be shifted elsewhere. Last night, I opined hiking the Gas Tax modestly, something that has not been done in nearly 25 years despite an exploding population, higher prices and more more fuel-efficiency.

Van de Putte, according to the Tribune article, was somewhat murky on how exactly she wold make up the lost money, not only for DPS, but also for programs such as Veterans. She did pledge, however, not to divert money earmarked for education.

Luckily, Van de Putte does admit that her meager proposal (which Abbott, House Speaker Joe Straus and even her Republican opponent, State Senator Dan Patrick (R-Harris County), have preceded her in backing) will not do enough. Incorporating the whole Highway Fund will likely only raise a fraction of the $5 Billion that state bureaucrats have suggested will be necessary to keep our roads in top shape.

For this, Van de Putte acknowledged the tough realities involving an unchanged gas tax, but stopped short of endorsing any action regarding it. Shortly thereafter, the Tribune noted that a spokesperson unequivocally ruled out raising taxes. Too bad.

Unlike some Democrats, I am not masochistic on the subject of taxation. I abhor the idea of creating a State Income Tax, and hope property taxes can one day be cut in a sizable manner. But roads cost money. As a frequent commuter between two major cities, and the venerable State Highway 71 that connects them, I rely particularly strongly on state-funded roads. They are built, maintained, repaired and expanded with tax money. And in the past 25 years, as gas mileage has shot up remarkably, the average individual has consumed far less gas. Meanwhile, as prices have risen from $1.10 in 1990 to about $3.00 today, the tax rate has stood steady at $0.20-a-galloon.

I get that being seen as pro-taxes is a poison pill in today’s political environment, so I do not fault Van de Putte’s campaign for the omission. But as the rhetoric approaches complacency regarding this issue, I hope Van de Putte and others know that, next session, they need to put every option on the table –including raising the gas tax– in order to not just repair our crumbling highways, but make them the envy of the world once more.

Crocodile tears

The Houston Chronicle reports that Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican candidate for Governor, has unveiled yet another television ad. Going back to the style of his first, very positive and self narrated, Abbott lamented the troubles facing Texas roads and outlined his proposal to help.

“A guy in a wheelchair can move faster than traffic on some roads in Texas,” Abbott says. He proposes prohibiting moneys in the State Highway Fund from going to non-highway sources. From what the ad says, Abbott appears to insinuate that these so-called diversions are pork barrel spending used by legislators as de facto earmarks. According to Abbott’s website, this could save $400,000,000.00 a year, or $800 Million a biennium!

This is all good and well, but the Houston Chronicle noted earlier this year that House Speaker Joe Straus will instruct members to compile a budget next session that does exactly this. Accordingly, if one were to agree with this proposal, Straus should get the accolades, not Abbott. However, this assumes that the proposal is a good idea. The Chronicle article suggests that the bulk of this non-transportation money spent out the highway fund goes to law enforcement agencies. Abbott’s website also admits that, “In the 2014-15 biennial budget , more than $800 million was appropriated to non-transportation related agencies, including the Office of Comptroller, the Veteran’s Commission, and the Department of Insurance.” Not pork-barrel spending, but veterans. Obviously, these important government expenditures will have to be made up for elsewhere in the budget, so the actual “savings” will be kept to a minimum.

As Dug Begley, the Chronicle’s awesome transportation columnist, has opined, roads are quite high priority but low on the totem pole for folks willing to spend money. People like Abbott, all too often, appear to think that they just magically appear one day. Those in the know in transportation land have said many billions of dollars are needed per annum just to maintain the quality of our roads with the exponentially increasing population. $4 Billion to $8 Billion, by some estimates. Abbott’s plan does not do this, and State Senator Wendy Davis (D-Tarrant County) does not have a good plan for it either.

Both candidates are afraid of uttering the true solution to this problem: raising the gas tax. Unchanged for nearly 25 years, the gas tax is the main mechanism that the State of Texas uses to fund its expansive highway system. Republicans and Democrats alike, trembling in fear before vehemently anti-tax voters, dare not to speak of raising it. But, because of this reluctance, the Texas Department of Transportation has only dug itself deeper and deeper into debt. State Senator Kevin Eltife (R-Smith County) is one of the few politicians willing to frankly discuss this problem, and the need to do something drastic (like hike the gas tax). The New York Times reported on this development last year in some detail.

But Eltife is not running for Governor, Abbott is. And Abbott’s grand plans for roads are completely worthless. It does not even put a band-aid over the problem like the Legislature did last session. He may shed crocodile tears over our crumbling roads, but he and his Tea Party friends’ extreme ideology are partly why we are in this situation. Roads are expensive.

Texpatriate supports Proposition 1

The average Harris County voter will be confronted with about 100 unique elections, come November. Many of them will be hard choices, many will likely be quite simple. One of the simplest decisions, undoubtedly, should be to VOTE YES on Proposition 1.

Prop 1 was prompted last summer by the State Legislature as a proposed constitutional amendment to withdraw more than $1.2 Billion from the State’s rainy day, in order to fund transportation infrastructure projects. Much like the $2 Billion similarly withdrawn from coffers last year to pass Proposition 6 (for water infrastructure projects), Prop 1 only makes a nominal dent in Texas’ figuratively overflowing surpluses in order to provide real solutions for long-term hazards.

But its importance truly cannot be understated. Many civil engineering firms have contracts contingent on passage of the referendum; this isn’t about their bottom line, it’s about desperately-needed work to update and care for the roads and highways that everyone takes for granted every single day. Roads cost money, bridges cost money and maintenance costs money. This money will be used for precisely that purpose. If you –like every Texan who has attempted to transverse a major city while the sun is up– have ever sat in traffic or lamented the declining state of roads and highways, this is an awfully good way to make a dent in it. Texas’ highways were once the envy of the world. It wasn’t because of courteous drivers of good weather, it was because the State went out of its way after repeated oil booms to leave some money to the side for the future.

Today, we have been graced by yet another oil boom. However, there are still some small-minded ideologues who would merely squander the returns, and not invest it in our future. There are also some naive, starry-eyed dreamers who will always bemoan the “if only” ad nauseum. Be it education, water or roads, depriving the next generation of a workable state is not just naive, it is downright cruel. Fortunately, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers, the leadership from both the Democrats and the Republicans, have come together on this issue in order to formulate solutions that are satisfactory for the future. Governor Rick Perry, never known for any modicum of liberalness on fiscal affairs, spearheaded this issue so strongly that he called a third special session of the State Legislature last year in order to pass the proposition after it had failed in a previous session.

Still, this board has its reservations about the proposition. Predominantly, we are concerned that it does not go far enough. Reporting at the time from the pertinent sources as the Texas Department of Transportation, more than $4 Billion was originally requested in order to fully accomplish their goals. Furthermore, considering the rapid growth that Texas is expected to undergo in the coming years, the deterioration of our roads will only compound in the future if a more comprehensive solution is not reached. Personally, we think the ideal solution to such a quandary is to raise the State’s Gas Tax, which has remained steady for more than two decades, but that is neither here nor there right now.

Right now, the imperative is to pass Prop 1, doling out the invaluable money needed in order to maintain Texas’ roads at their current congestion rates. Hopefully, it can be a foundation for future goals, so that we may  –once more– have roads that are the envy of the world.

The Texpatriate Editorial Board is comprised of Noah M. Horwitz & Olivia Arena of Austin, George Bailey of Boston, Luis Fayad of College Station and Andrew Scott Romo of New Orleans. Editorials represent a majority opinion of the voting board.

Astrodome referendum

The Houston Chronicle reports that the Commissioners’ Court has approved a bond issue, to be placed on the November ballot, to convert the Astrodome into a convention center and exhibition hall. As some may recall, the Commissioners tentatively hammered out this plan back in June. The price tag on this, $217 Million, will be placed before voters concurring with the Municipal and Constitutional amendment election. From the (extremely short) Chronicle piece by Kiah Collier:

“A $217 million bond authorization that would pay to turn the iconic Astrodome into a convention and exhibit hall is officially headed to Harris County voters.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday ordered a November bond election for the renovation, and also approved $8 million for asbestos abatement, selective demolition and other work county staff says needs to be done on the vacant stadium whether it is revamped or torn down.

That includes allowing the county purchasing agent to inventory and sell Dome-related “sports memorabilia,” including signs.

If the referendum passes and the county chooses to issue the entire bond amount, county budget staff have said it would increase the average property tax bill by $8 a year.

That’s for a home valued at $200,000, minus a $40,000 homestead exemption.”

I have a few things to say about this. First, for all of these property tax messes, the true devil is always in the details. From what I recall about property tax messes, just because the $200k house gets a $8 hike doesn’t necessarily mean the $500k house gets only a $20k hike. But that is a somewhat complicated issue I’ll get to a little bit later.

The biggest issue I thought of immediately was how this would affect the Constitutional Amendment election coinciding with the Municipal elections this November. Although there are close to a dozen actual ballot measure, far and away the most important is the “Water measure,” asking voters to earmark very large sums of money ($2B) to guarantee the continued water security of the State. In fact, it is such a large sum of money that the powers-to-be in this State specifically moved the Transportation funding referendum to 2014 because they were afraid of the two referendums coinciding.

All of that has now been lost with the Astrodome measure on the November ballot. Now, I suppose there is something to be said about its County vs State money, so voters would not feel so guilty spending all the money. However, it rarely works as clear as that to the average voter.

Further, if this were simply a General Election, a divergent voting pattern out of Harris County would not be all that bad. However, in odd-year elections like this Houston stands alone as the only large municipality with concurrent elections. Accordingly, the may doom the Astrodome deal, Water deal or both.

Sine die, MoFos!

My general thoughts at the moment. The term “83rd Legislature Special Session” is such a taint upon this State, that I am ecstatic to delete it from my memory.

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The Texas Tribune reports that, just after 10PM last night and final passage of the Transportation funding legislation of HB1 and SJR1, the Dean of the Senate, John Whitmire, made the comment “Let’s adjourn this mutha [sic].” These bills passed by bipartisan margins, and earned praise from the Governor for not raising the gas tax. However, as has been pointed out to me, the gas tax hasn’t been raised in about 20 years, and any and all monetary tricks that do not involve raising it will not solve the problem. The Tribune lays out this problem:

“The latest version is estimated to raise $1.2 billion a year for TxDOT, a fraction of the more than $4 billion TxDOT has said it needs in additional annual funding to maintain current congestion levels as the state’s population grows.”

SJR1 ended up finally passing the House 106-21. Unlike last time, the vast majority of the dissenting votes were Democrats. In fact, most of the liberal Democrats (Burnam, Collier, Farrar, etc) voted against the measure. Additionally, the journals finally came out in the Senate and we can see their final roll call on the joint resolution: 22-3, with Dan Patrick, Ken Paxton and Charles Schwertner voting nay. I understand, trying to appeal to a Tea Party base in a Statewide primary, why the cupcake cadets voted no, but Schwertner is a mystery.

On HB1, the House passed the bill with only David Simpson objecting and the Senate with only Kel Seliger against.

If you are curious what this bill does, I invite you to consult my prior work on the matter. HB1 is a bill, so Perry still must sign it, but SJR1 is not, and it simply goes directly to referendum. However, as you may recall, it will not go before voters in 2013, but rather in 2014.

As for the 83rd Legislature, it is dunzo. After passing both bills, they adjourned sine die. No more. That’s it. Sayonara. What this means, however, is that all the other issues possibly to be added to the call must wait until the 84th Legislature, due to convene in January of 2015.

What this means for me is that I can now focus, nearly exclusively, on Municipal elections. Of course, there will still be some issues pertaining to the 2014 Primaries, but the Mayoral election will now be sure to heat up. I have been asked multiple times to start making predictions, but I had been holding off until the Legislature adjourned. Well, now that they have adjourned, I guess I have run out of excuses…

Off the Kuff has more.

Lege update 8/1

There are three words I would have never thought I’d be piecing together. But here we are, three Special Sessions into the summer. Thus far, Transportation funding is the only issue on the call, though Campus Construction & Guns on Campus could still appear. As one may recall from my previous post on the issue, the Senate has already approved SJR1. At press time, the journal has still not been uploaded, so I have absolutely no idea how the vote went down.

Anyways, the Texas Tribune now reports that the House Select Committee on Transportation has taken up SJR1, and purposefully chosen not to move forward with the legislation. The Committee then took up HJR1, which is Joe Pickett’s plan, and passed the measure 6-1 with the lone dissenting vote coming from Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Harris County). Sergio Munoz (D-Hidalgo County), the only other Democrat on the committee, voted yes, as did all four Republicans.

There are a few different circumstances, however. First, Comptroller Susan Combs announced that Oil & Gas taxes would come into the coffers at levels $900 Million higher than previously expected. Second, there were some changes to Pickett’s proposals. From the Tribune:

Pickett added a provision to the plan that would require the Texas Department of Transportation to find $100 million in “efficiencies” over the 2014-15 biennium and put that money toward paying the agency’s multibillion-dollar debt. Paying off that much debt early would save the agency $47 million in debt service payments, Pickett said.

[…]

The other key difference in Pickett’s new proposal would be in the way the Legislature could ensure that the plan wouldn’t drain the Rainy Day Fund’s balance beyond a level with which state leaders are comfortable. A previous version required the Legislative Budget Board to periodically set a minimum balance, or floor, for the Rainy Day Fund below which tax revenue could not be diverted to transportation. Pickett switched out the LBB with a select joint committee of five House members and five senators.

Also, at the start of each legislative session, lawmakers would have the opportunity to file bills proposing that the floor selected by the committee be adjusted, Pickett said. Such a bill would need to pass both chambers within the first 60 days of the session to be enacted. 

This bill, most likely, will be approved by the full House. At that point, HJR1 and SJR1 would have to be battled-out in Conference Committee, just like last time. It is unclear what the end game here is.

In other news, the Texas Tribune reported that Sen. Ken Paxton (R-Collin County) officially announced his candidacy for Attorney General. Paxton will be facing off against Rep. Dan Branch and Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman in the GOP primary. It will be quite the contest. Paxton, by the way, has a two-year term, so if he loses the primary, he will be unemployed.

Triple overtime

In the afternoon today, both the House and the Senate gaveled in for 83(3), the Third Special Session. It will run for thirty days, until August 28th. The House quickly created a Select Committee on Transportation, consisting of seven members including Senfronia Thompson, then adjourned until next Monday, August 5th. The Senate, meanwhile, passed an identical measure, SJR1, in the Finance Committee 10-1. The lone dissenting vote was that of Dan Patrick, who still opposed the Conference Committee’s solution of replacing a hard-floor with a LBB recommendation. The Senate also finally passed the bill, then gaveled out.

Now, at this point, only Transportation funding is on the call of the session. But we all know that a single-issue Special Session can fall apart within a couple of days. Among the issues some want Perry to add to 83(3)’s call are TRBs for Campus Construction, as well as “Guns on Campus.”

First, the Texas Tribune reports that members of both houses of the Legislature, from both parties, are pushing for tuition revenue bonds for campus –specifically the campus of UT-Austin– construction. Among those in favor of such a measure are Rep. Donna Howard (D-Travis County), Sen. Judith Zaffrini (D-Bexar County), Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Potter County), Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Travis County) and Rep, John Raney (R-Brazos County). Among those opposed to such action are the usually cupcake cadets, lead by Van Taylor.

Since it is a new session, the exact nature of the bill of this issue will most likely differ from previous versions. That being said, the measure is somewhat common sense, backed by at least 69 members of the House. In the past, Perry has been open about this issue, telling the Tribune, “Once we get the transportation issue addressed and finalized, then we can have a conversation about whether or not there are any other issues that we have the time and inclination to put on the call.”

Next, the Houston Chronicle reports that Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Hood County) is leading the charge to get Governor Perry to add “Guns on Campus,” already known as “Campus Carry” to the call. As loyal readers will recall, I was jumping for joy when this horrible bill died during the regular session. And the Editorial Board member who attends the University of Texas was really, really happy.

Like Perry said, these issues are things that will be dealt with at the conclusion of the transportation issue. I’m still trying to figure out the roll call on SJR1 in the Senate. The true test will now be in the House, which now stands idle until Monday.

Transportation bill death & 83(3)

The Texas Tribune reports that HJR2, the new compromise transportation funding measure the Conference Committee just came up with, was dead on arrival in the House of Representatives late Monday. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso), would have done some interesting things. From the Tribune:

If the compromise plan before lawmakers on Monday had passed, Texas voters in 2014 would have been asked to approve a constitutional amendment to divert half of the oil and gas production tax revenue currently earmarked for the state’s Rainy Day Fund toward road construction and maintenance.

But both Democrats and Republicans found fault with the compromise language hashed out by House and Senate negotiators over the weekend regarding a so-called floor on the Rainy Day Fund. Some Republicans had pushed for a provision that would have blocked the diversion of tax revenue to the state highway fund if the Rainy Day Fund’s balance fell below a certain level. Many Democrats argued that would put a new, tighter restraint on tapping the fund to address the state’s needs.

Under the plan presented to both chambers Monday, the 10-member Legislative Budget Board would periodically set the minimum balance after which the diversions would be blocked.

I tend to recall something about Pickett’s plan funding more of the transportation & infrastructure directly from taxes, revenue normally earmarked for education. In return, the rainy day fund would be drained to pay for education. This might have been thrown out in the Conference Committee.

Anyways, the House only voted 84-40 in favor oft he bill, sixteen short of the supermajority required for passage. Among the 40 dissenting votes, only 13 were Democrats. This means that even if every Democrat in the room had supported the bill, it would have failed. Make no mistake, the Tea Party killed HJR2.

Off the Kuff has more about the Transportation bill unfortunate demise.

At about 2:50 today, the House adjourned sine die. The Senate is expected to do the same somewhat soon. The Dallas Morning News also reports that Perry will be calling a third special session immediately to deal with this issue. Like today immediately, that is.

My grandfather used to tell a joke with all of his old war buddies that ended with the punchline “that’s beautiful, just f—–g beautiful.” I take it, for all of the Legislators who now must extend their leases until the end of August in Austin, a city where the half the population moves in during August, that would pretty much sum up everything right about now.