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Rodeo 80

The 2007 Legislature in a quick-step roundup

Fri., June 8, 2007

On the dais, House Speaker Tom Craddick faces down rebellion beside his instant parliamentarian, former Rep. Terry Keel
On the dais, House Speaker Tom Craddick faces down rebellion beside his instant parliamentarian, former Rep. Terry Keel
Photo By Jana Birchum


The Budget: Whose Priorities?

One hundred fifty-two billion dollars over two years. It's being touted as a "record" budget, but ranking Democrats have savaged the biennial sum for failing to keep up with rising costs and a rising population, never mind the decade-plus of systematic underfunding of state agencies.

Throughout the negotiation process over House Bill 1, the budget bill, the Senate Finance and the House Appropriations committees agreed on one thing: that almost every state agency has been damaged by years of underfunding. The plan was to move cash from one-off special items into the core budget, where it would be much harder for future legislatures to slash. Instead, the final bill saw many special items added in during the last weeks at the request of Gov. Rick Perry – special items he could still veto. As Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, said in a joint press release with fellow Dems Garnet Coleman of Houston and Pete Gallego of Alpine, "If this is the best budget the [L]egislature can pass in the best of times, Texans should pray that we never see the worst of times again."

They point to the estimated $10 billion shortfall, which will leave many agencies with too little cash to cover current demands and major funds actuarially unsound. This means, for example, 100,000 fewer children covered by Children's Health Insurance Program and 7,000 fewer college students eligible for Toward Excellence, Access and Success Grants than in 2003 – failures that could have been solved by using the record $14.3 billion surplus.

Instead, in a return to trickle-down economics, $11 billion of the surplus has been set aside for one-off property-tax cuts over the next four years, 95% of which goes to people earning more than $85,000 a year. The original House version had left the latest $3 billion of that surplus in general revenue funds so it could be spent on state business in an emergency. The Senate moved it to the ring-fenced property-tax relief fund, which would require a new law to access. "The first priority for David Dewhurst and Tom Craddick was to fund the rich man's rainy-day fund," said Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso. "Let me ask this to the people of the state of Texas: Is that your priority?" – Richard Whittaker


Austin UnBashed

They say it's poor form to speak ill of the dead – but like many of the dubious parliamentary decisions issued toward sine die, the normal rules don't apply here. With the House and Senate recently departed, our fine city's a merry widow, rejoicing that several Austin-bashing bills never got their due. But the untimely demise of a few near and dear – plus an ocean of fine print to wade through – means the 80th Legislature still haunts us.

Bills that would have rolled back Austin's clean-water protections – a frequent target under the dome – were flushed. Government relations officer John Hrncir, who tracks legislation, good and bad, for the city, points to egregious bills from frosh Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, that would have eroded local authority to enforce stricter water-quality provisions; the bill never made it out of committee. Another bill from Hegar the Horrible that would have cut the city's ability to perform necessary land "takings" also died an unmourned death. Hrncir says several bills blocking the city's ability to annex Lost Creek Municipal Utility District failed "in all their various manifestations," as did bills that would have gutted the city's McMan-sion ordinances. Hrncir says the bills (from Rep. Edmund Kuempel, R-Seguin) would have broadly impacted general zoning ability and therefore attracted the unwelcome attention of other cities, crushing their chances.

Still, some important city initiatives were also felled. Drafted with city approval, and having cleared the House, legislation guaranteeing meet-and-confer contract negotiations for city employees looked sure to pass – until Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, unexpectedly offed it in the Senate. The American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees union local vows to continue the fight; if its members don't feel like waiting for the Lege to reconvene, they could put citywide meet-and-confer to a vote; that's how Austin's firefighters earned it. (Other local labor bills – meet-and-confer for Emergency Medical Services providers and changes to Austin's police retirement fund – passed.) The city's other big loss was legislation creating transportation district zoning in the municipal no-man's-land along State Highway 130, the future artery of Austin's growth to the east. While not terribly controversial itself, the complicated highway bill suffered from the general controversy over transport and toll roads. "It got caught in the cross fire," Hrncir says.

Despite the losses, the city made some pragmatic gains. A bill revising local Rep. Eddie Rodriguez's Eastside homestead preservation district legislation from last session passed, as did a Senate cleanup bill covering Travis County's hospital district. Hrncir also points to passage of several smaller bills on the city agenda, like a business-supported bill allowing restaurants to serve alcohol to outdoor tables.

With the Lege's corpse still warm, Hrncir's still sifting through the fine print on hundreds of bills. "There's lots of bills we haven't made a final decision on," he says – and with the governor having until June 17 to sign or veto bills, this session's spirit may long stalk the land. – Wells Dunbar


Enviro Grades: Very Mixed

On Tuesday, at the conclusion of a legislative session in which energy and environmental issues enjoyed unusual prominence – with discernible progress made on energy efficiency and renewable-energy fronts – several of the state's green groups held a press conference to assess the aftermath.

First, the good news.

HB 3693, an efficiency omnibus bill that eases solar users' ability to sell power back to the utility grid, immediately doubles utilities' requirements to meet new electricity demand through energy-efficiency programs (from 10% to 20%) and calls for a state study of going to 50% in coming years, creates a Memorial Day sales-tax holiday for energy-efficient appliances, and requires that state and local government buildings (including schools) study their energy use and cut it by 30% over six years, by using efficient lighting and buying appliances meeting the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star requirements.

Senate Bill 12, designed to financially bolster emissions-reduction programs to repair or replace Texas' dirtiest autos, passed with an amendment also to adopt tighter building codes.

At the back mic Tyler Rep. Leo Berman praises Craddick's leadership amidst the gathering storm
At the back mic Tyler Rep. Leo Berman praises Craddick's leadership amidst the gathering storm
Photo By Jana Birchum

HB 1090, which offered incentives to generate energy from biomass (such as agricultural crops and debris, wood, plants, animal waste, and municipal and industrial wastes), also included an amendment to kill the rogue Public Utility Commission rule, Subsection M, which many feared would kill Texas' renewable-energy market.

SB 1604 consolidates the regulation of radioactive substances from three separate agencies to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality while notably securing citizens' rights to call for a contested-case hearing for uranium-mining permits – a potential threat to water supplies. (HBs 3837 and 3838, also related to uranium mining, are expected to bring new state rules for the initial permitting process and better notification to local citizens.)

Bee Moorhead, director of interfaith advocacy nonprofit Texas Impact, praised the "unprecedented citizen involvement" she observed this session.

Now the bad news. As the session waned, Sierra Club lobbyist Cyrus Reed said it became clear that "the Legislature left the plan in place for industry to increase tons of pollutants into the Texas air in coming years." The largest letdowns included failures to address the threat of 11 proposed new coal power plants and specifically the state's weak permitting system, as well as the absence of legislation to rein in Texas' nation-leading contributions to climate change. Notably missing, too, was legislation to clean up acute concentrations of toxic air pollution in so-called hot spots – often cancer-plagued residential areas near industrial centers.

An energy-planning bill, HB 2713, will consider global warming emissions in its recommendations to the 2009 Lege, but more direct tactics, such as bills that called for measured CO2 reductions and a state global warming task force, were unsuccessful. And though SB 12 will clean the air, an amendment that would have enacted efficiency standards for 10 appliances – which might have saved a coal plant's worth of energy – was stripped in closed-conference committee. Tom "Smitty" Smith of watchdog group Public Citizen faulted the private conference process, saying that "no fingerprints are left on the eraser" as citizens are betrayed by leadership.

Greens also grimaced at the passage of two nuke-incentive bills, one allowing the nuclear industry to spread out required decommissioning costs over time and another permitting nuclear plant exemptions from school property-tax rolls if they expand.

Finally, SBs 482 and 483, designed to control utility dominance, unwieldy electricity rates, and to assess penalties for utilities like TXU, which greens accuse of Enron-style market manipulation, died with the close of the session. It's unclear whether Perry will call a special session to address the unresolved utility matters. – Daniel Mottola


TYC: Enough!

In a session when the Lege faced criticism for big issues unsolved, the raw anger shown over the sexual, physical, and administrative abuse perpetrated at the Texas Youth Commission quickly became legislative action.

Authored by Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and refined by Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, in the House Corrections Committee, SB 103 rebuilds TYC from the ground up. With facilities closing, inmates being released, senior officers fired or quitting, and staff at several facilities facing criminal charges, the ground has been leveled. Now the new structures take shape. Youths convicted of misdemeanors will no longer be sent to TYC. Once incarcerated, felons will be kept in age groups, to reduce the risk of abuse, and the maximum age is cut from 21 to 19. The inmates left will be better protected: Juvenile corrections officers will require 300 hours of training, while a new inspector general, TYC inspectors, and an independent ombudsman will examine any internal allegations.

The only real debate was over top management: Hinojosa wanted an executive commissioner, selected by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, to replace the discredited citizen board. To ensure some oversight, the commissioner would be reconfirmed every session. Hochberg, however, thought it was important to maintain a citizen board and didn't want future scandals to get lost in the paperwork between the Capitol and the Governor's Mansion. Finally, in conference committee, a deal was hammered out: Hinojosa's commissioner gets two years to make sweeping reforms. In 2009, the agency will face further changes under the Sunset Review process and then be handed back to a new citizen board.

The reforms have yet to be proven. The decision to fire and bar the hiring of felons and misdemeanants as correctional officers has led to staffing issues. Part of the problem has always been staff levels: There was only one staff member for every 24 inmates, which meant a lack of control and investigation. The new target is 1-to-12, still short of the federally recommended 1-to-8. – Richard Whittaker


Voting Rights: Defended ... Mostly

The security of your ballot was the subject of several bills at the Capitol this session, two of which – HB 218, the voter ID bill, and HB 626, the registration ID bill – resulted in fierce floor fights of near-Ardmorian proportions. The former would have required voters to present photo IDs in addition to their voter-registration cards at the polls, a requirement that GOP backers said was necessary to prevent noncitizens and others from committing voting fraud; Democrats countered that the bill was a solution in search of a problem, that no epidemic of voter impersonation was occurring, and that the bill was actually meant to keep people less likely to possess a photo ID (the elderly, minorities, the poor – three groups likely to vote Dem) from exercising their democratic rights.

The bill easily passed the House, but a two-thirds vote is needed to bring a bill up for debate on the Senate floor, and Dems hold just more than a third of the Senate's seats. So that's where the dirty tricks began. First, voter-ID backer Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst tried to take advantage of the absence of ailing Carlos Uresti and recognized a motion for debate on 218. Then, he claimed that John Whitmire had been off the floor during voting, which would have cinched the two-thirds. Whitmire furiously argued that he had been present and voted "nay" and let loose on Dewhurst so angrily that the lite guv threatened to boot him from the chamber. Dewhurst finally backed down and allowed a revote, by which time Uresti had returned to kill the bill.

Dems also worried that Dewhurst would bring the bill back if recent liver-transplant patient Mario Gallegos was absent; against the advice of his doctors, Gallegos kept vigil in a hospital bed inside the Capitol until he finally shamed Dewhurst into a promise to let 218 die.

HB 626 would have been even worse, requiring potential voters to present photo ID when registering – which would have effectively killed off the concept of voter-registration drives. After the fireworks over HB 218, HB 626 was allowed to quietly die in Senate committee.

Other bills would have dealt with the problem of paperless electronic-voting machines. Several would have required a printout of each ballot cast so that voters could verify whether their choices had been properly recorded (and which could be used later in the event of a recount); a bill by Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, would have banned electronic voting entirely and returned Texas to hand-counted paper ballots. None of those bills made it out of committee. – Lee Nichols


Texas Film: Come Back, Shane

The Lege has tried to bring Hollywood back to Texas by pumping $20 million in tax breaks into the Texas Film Incentive Program. Approved but unfunded in 2005, the program was intended to encourage films to come here rather than states with similar incentives – hoping to recoup the estimated 704 million dollars' worth of productions and 4,500 jobs lost since 2003. But legislators also dealt with another big barrier to filmmakers choosing Lone Star State locations – Texas state government itself. There has been no set rate for shooting at a state agency, and some agencies were point-blank refusing to allow filmmakers to shoot in their buildings or grounds. HB 374, by Reps. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, and David Swinford, R-Amarillo, means film, TV, and commercial makers could apply straight to the Texas Music, Film, Television, and Multimedia Office for permission to shoot at any state-owned site. The state agency responsible for the site will have final say on whether they get to use it, but the film office gets to set the cost. Filmmakers would have a clear pricing structure and only be charged for the days they use the site, removing any element of surprise. – Richard Whittaker


Women's Rights: Stalemate

Concerning reproductive rights and women's health care, the legislative session was plenty of smoke, no fire. In the end, maintaining the status quo is probably preferable to facing a blaze of new laws regarding a woman's right to make decisions regarding her reproductive life in confidence with her doctor. Attempts to include lawmakers in women's private health-care decisions died – including Houston Sen. Dan Patrick's SB 920, which would've required a woman seeking abortion to first review an ultrasound image of her fetus. Of course, maintaining the status quo means progressive measures also perished – including Austin Rep. Mark Strama's bid to increase access to comprehensive reproductive health and family-planning services for poor women (HB 1842). Lawmakers did approve another $5 million to fund crisis-pregnancy centers, which provide no medical care whatsoever and exist solely to "promote childbirth" over abortion. – Jordan Smith
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