Transportation deal in the works

The Texas Tribune reports that a very select Conference Committee, including Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Sen. Finance Cmte. Chair Tommy Williams and Sen. Transportation Cmte. Chair Robert Nichols, has come up with the framework for a deal on Transportation funding. As the astute may recall, this was the issue added immediately after redistricting to the call of the first special session. However, the filibuster and other misplaced priorities on the part of the Republicans lead to the issue dying at sine die. The issue, along with Miller compliance and abortion, was added to this session’s call.

The House and the Senate have both previous passed Transportation funding bills. The key difference between the two bills rest on what money from the rainy day fund (RFD) is used for, as well as how much money to use. The House’s version included a convoluted project which would entangle education funding, by switching around lots of earmarks for RDF-bound taxes.

The Conference Committee’s bill would divert lots of money earmarked for the RDF, originally form oil & gas taxes, for transportation funding, predominantly highway maintenance. While many originally wanted a provision setting a minimum RDF balance at $6 Billion, this new bill requires the Legislative Budget Board (LBB), dominated by Republicans, to set the amount. This bill is a constitutional amendment, meaning it requires 2/3 of both Houses and must be endorsed by a majority of voters in November–although the new bill pushes the referendum back to 2014.

Since 2/3 is required, 5 House Democrats and 2 Senate Democrats are needed for approval. This is not just a rule or a tradition, but part of the State’s Constitution. Dewhurst cannot get around it. Accordingly, it is worth noting that Democrats are somewhat unified in opposition to setting a limit to the RDF balance.

This is somewhat noteworthy, because the session ends on Tuesday. The Houston Chronicle reports that Perry has absolutely no problems calling lawmakers for a third special session on this issue, and this issue alone.

Accordingly, it may be in the Democrats’ interest to compromise.

UPDATE: Off the Kuff has more.

Lege update 7/18

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Shortly after 9:30 this morning, Governor Perry signed HB2, the omnibus anti-abortion bill, into law. The law is a death warrant for thousands of poor, rural women who will now be denied access to abortion clinics. Democrats had promised a same-day lawsuit to be filed the date of signature, but it looks like they did not follow through on the threat.

At his signing statement, Perry surrounded himself with fellow Conservatives. The Texas Tribune reports that Perry doubled down on the lie that HB2 is about the 20 week ban. ““This is a bill that protects unborn babies after the fifth month of a pregnancy,” Perry said. Once again, that is not the point of the bill. In addition to the 20 week ban, it requires abortion doctors to administer all drugs in person, have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital and –& this is the big one– require the clinics convert into ambulatory surgical centers.

Per the above photographs, there were protesters at the capital today. They donned black clothing, carried wire coathangers and chanted “SHAME!” over and over again.

In other news, the House voted to advance HJR2, a transportation funding measure not identical to the one the Senate passed last week. The Senate bill had originally drawn Transportation funding from the Rainy Day Fund. This bill siphons the 25% of the Gas Tax earmarked for education to TXDOT. In order to make up for this, the Rainy Day Fund would be withdrawn for education funding.

This bill, HJR2, was approved 108-25, with only Tea Party Republicans voting against the measure. Debbie Riddle, Jodie Laudenberg, David Simpson, Bryan Hughes: all those people.

The House also approved a companion bill, HB16, by a 124-11 vote. The entire Transportation funding plan will only come into effect if the Senate approves HJR2 with at least 21 votes and the constitutional amendment is approved by a majority of voters.

The Legislature then adjourned until next Thursday, July 25th. At that point, the Legislature will have about one week left.

Lege Update 7/11

The Legislature had quite a busy day today, in both chambers. The House has adjourned until Monday, and the Senate gavels back into play at 2PM tomorrow. Obviously, the most controversial and newsworthy item is still HB2/SB1, the omnibus anti-abortion bill. However, a number of actions were taken today dealing with the other two topics on the call, as well as a third not on the call. Let us digest the matter.

For starters, both the House and Senate concurred in a final Miller compliance bill for sentencing 17 year olds convicted of Capital Murder. The Texas Tribune reports that SB2 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Harris County) was passed 30-1 in the Senate and then 113-23 in the House. As the Austin American-Statesman noted, this is the Senate’s original bill, which places a mandatory life with parole sentence, typically meaning parole after 40 years. The House’s bill originally allowed the jury to consider aggravating circumstances and evidence that would lead them to specifically sentence the minors to life-without-parole.

Some Democrats, led by Rep. Terry Canales (D-Hidalgo County), objected to the bill because it prevented juries from considering any mitigating circumstances and evidence that would lead them to impose a lighter sentence, such as 25 years. The only Senate objector was Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso County). Rodriguez objected because of his belief the bill is unconstitutional. For what it’s worth, I wrote an entire Law Review article on this exact topic last semester, so I beg to disagree. But that’s a discussion for a different day. Anyways, both Houses passed the identical SB2, which now heads to Governor Perry’s desk.

The Senate also passed SJR1, the Transportation funding bill, which you may recall is having some trouble in the House. All eyes go there at this point. The SJR1 approved in the Senate is identical to the Committee’s bill, which simply diverts a portion of the rainy day fund into highway maintenance funding.

In other news, the Tribune also reports that the House Appropriations Committee has passed HB5, known as the “Campus Construction Bill.” The bill would issue, according to the Tribune article, “bonds for 62 campus construction projects.” The bill passed unanimously, 18-0, and now heads to Calendar. All looks good. The only problem is that the Governor has not added the issue to the call of the Special Session, though this is a bipartisan inkling to Perry that he should do so immediately. Most locally, the bonds would include $95 Million in bonds for UT-Austin.

Finally, there was significant action on the omnibus anti-abortion bill. Most pressing, the Tribune reports that the Senate Health & Human Services Committee has passed HB2 along party lines, 6-3. Further, the Tribune article states that Dewhurst has promised to bring the bill up on Friday at 2PM. This is it, folks. Please see my inspirational charge “Remember the Alamo,” about where to go from here. The twitters and facebooks of Democratic Senators are lighting up about the final protest being held tomorrow. It will be interesting, to be sure.

In other news, Rick “frothy mixture” Santorum made an appearance at the Capitol today, further proving the bill is not about women’s health. Speaking of women’s health, the Statesman proves that abortions in Texas are notoriously safe. Last but not least, Greg Abbott will be giving his own “new and exciting plans” speech in San Antonio on Monday. He will be announcing his gubernatorial intentions, obviously.

Lege update 7/9

First and foremost, I want to discuss the events that took place today resulting in the possibility of productive, meaningful legislation. And by that, I mean, the stuff that will not almost certainly be struck by a Federal Court.

As the astute followers may recall, exactly one week ago the Senate unanimously approved SJR1, a Transportation funding  bill, and SB2, a “Miller compliance” bill. Both bills passed the committee somewhat under the radar.

Today,  both of those bills came up for consideration in the equivalent Senate committees. HB4, the Miller compliance bill, passed 4-1, with Rep. Terry Canales being the sole dissenter. The Houston Chronicle reported its passage, and insinuated it was somewhat different from SB2, the Senate equivalent. For the life of me, I read HB4, and cannot find any meaningful difference between it and the Senate’s bill. Both bills provide a mandatory sentence of life with parole, or forty years, for 17 year olds convicted of capital murder.

Then, the House Appropriations Committee took up the Transportation bill, and was less successful. A companion piece of legislation to SJR1,which would have diverted a significant amount of cash from the rainy day fund into highway maintenance, HJR1, was set for a vote. However, the Texas Tribune reports that Sylvester Turner, who is the Vice-Chairman of the Committee, raised a variety of concerns with the measure. These included the fact that SJR1/HJR1 sets a maximum amount to be withdrawn from the rainy day fund. Turner was concerned that this would raise too little money for transportation. A competing bill was also considered by the committee. That bill, HJR2, was the brainchild of Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso). That bill would have eliminated the diversion of fuel tax money into education. Instead, all of the money would go to transportation. The educational setbacks would presumably be offset by rainy day fund withdrawals.

Personally, I find SJR1/HJR1 to be the favorable bill. All Pickett’s bill does is pass the hot potato to students and teachers. That isn’t fair, they’ve been the ones messed with recently. I would rather see a problem down the road for highways than high schools, but that’s just me.

Now the big news. The Texas Tribune reports that HB2, the House’s omnibus anti-abortion bill, has passed on second reading 98-49. The day was a long one for the House, coming into session at 10AM and immediately bringing up the bill.

The Democrats –and one Republican, Rep. Sarah Davis of Harris County– brought up 22 amendments. One after another, every single one of them was tabled. They would have provided exemptions for rape and the health of the mother. Not important, in the GOP’s mind. They would have struck everything but the 20 week ban, since that seems to be all the Republicans keep bringing up. Lots of good amendments, including ones for sex ed, but to no avail. The Republicans are not interested in compromise, they are only interested in appeasing their primary voters.

Ryan Guillen (D-Starr County), Abel Herrero (D-Nueces County), Armando Martinez (D-Hidalgo County), Sergio Munoz (D-Hidalgo County) and Joe Pickett (D-El Paso County) were the five Democrats to brake ranks and vote yes on this obscenely unconstitutional legislation. None of them have been or ever will be pregnant. Funny how those things work. I will do everything in power, financially and politically, to make sure none of these men ever win another Democratic primary in my Texas. These men ought to be ashamed of themselves, for it is their constituents, the poor population in El Paso, Corpus Christi and the Valley, who will be hundreds of miles away from the nearest sage, legal abortion.

Kudos to Sarah Davis, however, for doing what is right. Also, Rep. Eddie Lucio III, whose father is the one Democratic Senator supporting the asinine bill, voted against it. Good for him.

The House adjourned slightly after the vote and will reconvene at about 10AM tomorrow for third reading. Once again, Senfronia Thompson stood at the front mike with a wire coathanger. The eyes of the world are still upon us, and I will have more on what to do from here tomorrow when I fly back to Houston.

Lege Update 7/2

As much as the omnibus anti-abortion bill seems to be all the rage these days, there is other stuff going on at the Legislature. Specifically, in addition to abortion, Gov. Perry added two more issues to the call: Transportation and Juvenile Criminal Justice. The same other two issues that were dealt with in the last special session.

The houses came very close to passing comprehensive legislation on Transportation funding and Capital Murder penalties for juveniles last special session. However, these bills were caught as collateral damage in the ultimate day’s filibuster. Like the abortion bill, these issues’ bills have been given new names to reflect the new session. SJR1 is the new Transportation Bill and SB2 is the new Criminal Justice bill. The Texas Tribune reports that both passed unanimously through committee today.

I have talked at length about the bills debated by the Legislature to create suitable (constitutional) penalties for juveniles convicted of capital murder. I have colloquially styled these the bills about “Miller compliance.” Last session, the Senate passed a bill which replaced the mandatory life-without-parole penalty (that was deemed unconstitutional) with a life-with-parole penalty. The House amended the bill to include the option of life-without-parole for the more heinous offenses. The bill that the Senate Criminal Justice Committee passed today, SB2, does not include that amendment. The vote was unanimous.

The Transportation measure, SJR1, which must pass with a 2/3 majority and then be approved by referendum this November, passed the Senate Finance Committee unanimously as well. That bill, which diverts over $1B from the Rainy Day Fund to the State Highway Fund, is identical to the measure nearly passed last Special Session.

Both of these bills are somewhat non-controversial, and should be passed by the Legislature ASAP. Contrary to public belief, these bills were not taken hostage by the Democrats. In fact, the Republicans made the strategic choice to kill them. Any honest follower of last week’s proceedings will remember that Kirk Watson stood up and said that the Democrats did not object to taking a final vote on the two bills before the SB5 filibuster occurred. Oh well.

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Then, of course, this happened. Starting at 3:30 today, the House State Affairs Committee held their obligatory public hearing on HB2, one of the successors to SB5. As I stated yesterday, Committee Chairman Byron Cook made clear that public comment would only run from 3:30PM to Midnight.

With 3,543 people signed up to testify, after getting started a little behind schedule (what a surprise), the Committee barely made it through 100 people before Cook took the unilateral, though not unexpected, step of cutting off public comment. Shortly after Midnight, without much warning, Cook abruptly ended the debate and took a vote. 8-3, along party lines in favor. However, the vote was taken so quickly that two Democrats could not return to the desk. Accordingly, the real vote should have been 8-5.

Shortly thereafter, the Capitol got cleared and locked down. The result, in the above photograph, was roughly 1000-1700 angry protesters banging on the doors to their place of government while 7 White Men and 1 White Woman, in the dead of night, passed punitively burdensome restrictions on the right to abortion.

The Texas Observer has the full story. This isn’t pretty, not in the slightest. I’ll sign off this evening by reprinting the words of the ranking Democrat on the Committee, Jessica Farrar, shortly after the panel approved the measure:

 “Once again, far-right House members in the State Affairs Committee blocked Texans from speaking against a bill that will harm woman across the state.  At midnight, the committee chairman cut off testimony, denying more than a thousand Texans the opportunity to speak out against dangerous legislation that would virtually ban safe and legal abortion statewide.”

“This isn’t the fair democratic process that we value in Texas.  This is politics at its worst”

“The Texas constitution says that the Governor may call a special session “on extraordinary occasions.  If this is such an ‘extraordinary occasion,’ Texans from across the state deserve the opportunity to voice their opinion.”

“On behalf of the women and men in the communities I serve — and those that were silenced tonight — I call on leadership to hold public hearings across the state so Texans can have their voice heard.”

 

Special Session adds transportation

The Texas Tribune reports that the Governor has made the executive decision to add “funding of transportation infrastructure projects” to the call of the special session.

While most members of the Senate remained open about what forms that funding could take, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst did not miss the chance to infuse politics into the mix. Dewhurst discussed the need for the legislature to “identify a reliable revenue stream without raising taxes…” The Tribune reports that the Governor himself is a proponent of bonds. No telling if that is satisfactory for the President of the Senate’s newly-found ultra-conservative position.

For my part, Transportation funding is not an especially vivacious or controversial issue, so this news would regularly not be very high on my priorities. However, it sets an important precedent: Perry is willing to expand the call of the special session. Of course, being willing to expand for a mundane issue like this is a far cry from a 2nd Amendment-themed expansion, but the principle is the same. Somewhere, somehow, Perry changed his mind about what was necessary since May 27th.

I find there to be a fascinating juxtaposition, however, between Perry and Dewhurst’s reactions to this event. Perry approached the situation like a tired, old statesman (Yes, I know calling Gov’nah Goodhair a “statesman” will come back to haunt me), just wanting to do his duty to the State and the taxpayers. Dewhurst, meanwhile, looked at it like an overzealous kid looking for talking points. You can tell that the Lieutenant Governor is gearing up for a heavy primary. From Perry, though, there is no such indication.