House of Representatives is finally hearing bills on the floor
The Voting Begins Well, it took just 71 days, but the House of Representatives is finally hearing bills on the floor. The Texas Constitution restricts the lower chamber from floor discussion in the first 60 days of the session – finally, on March 19, the House addressed its first actual calendar. This also means that, with the session more than halfway through, the clock is ticking for bills to get out of committee. The first measure for discussion was House Bill 1000 by Rep. René Oliveira, D-Brownsville, "Relating to the creation of a new university in South Texas within The University of Texas System."
Payday Lenders Too Powerful Senate Business and Commerce Chair John Carona, R-Dallas, has conceded there is little appetite amongst his fellow lawmakers to regulate the state's payday lenders. What made this shocking was that he admitted this while trying to get his own payday rules out of his own committee. On March 19, Carona's SB 1247, which would standardize statewide regulations, was attacked by consumer groups and even Catholic Bishop of Austin Joe Vasquez for failing to protect consumers. Moreover, it would overwrite much tougher regulations passed in cities like Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio. Carona is not alone in attempting to control this often predatory and usurious industry; Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, has filed his own payday lending measure, HB 3033, which would force greater transparency about ownership. If a ranking Republican chair like Carona is having trouble, then Rodriguez's bill – not yet assigned to a committee – seems doomed.
No More Gas Chambers: Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, added a little star power to his efforts to end animal euthanasia via carbon monoxide poisoning when Zero Dark Thirty and Friday Night Lights star Kyle Chandler dropped by the Lege as part of the Texas Humane Lobby Day. The March 14 event, organized by the Humane Society of the U.S., the ASPCA, and Texas Humane Legislation Network, was intended to gain support for Watson's gas chamber ban in SB 360. The measure was unanimously approved by the Health & Human Services Committee on March 20 and now heads to the full Senate. If approved, it would restrict shelters to using sodium pentobarbital to put down animals, which Watson has called the most humane option.
Don't Legislate Drunk, Just Drive That Way If the Texas House's response to Rep. Naomi Gonzalez, D-El Paso, getting busted for drunken driving is any measure, don't expect any new harsh DUI laws. The highly touted Dem was arrested on March 14 after allegedly driving her BMW into another car, shoving that one into a cyclist. After public outrage about the soft sentencing of former House staffer Gabrielle Nestande for the 2011 drunken-driving death of Courtney Griffin, Gonzalez might have been expected to keep a low profile. Instead, on March 18, she made a speech from the floor apologizing to her constituents and colleagues. While she seemed shaken and contrite, her fellow lawmakers treated her like a hero, with a standing ovation, bouquets, and high fives as she returned to her seat. Furious at their response, Texas MADD public policy liaison Bill Lewis said, "Cut out the flowers."
Foul Play Against the UIL There's an unexpected flag on the play as Republicans try to bring private schools into the University Interscholastic League. The Texas High School Coaches Association has come out against SB 573 by Senate Education Committee Chair Dan Patrick, R-Houston, which would require the UIL to allow private schools to apply and compete against public schools. The THSCA warned its members that, because private schools could aggressively recruit promising athletes, "this bill would destroy a level playing field for our public schools and the children they serve," and that the impact would go beyond sports, with music, fine arts, and all levels of academics affected.
The Thin End of the School Choice Wedge Republicans and their allies are doubling down on SB 115 by Senate Finance Committee Chair Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands. The measure would provide publicly funded scholarships to send students with disabilities to private schools. Texas Americans for Prosperity – the Lone Star subsidiary of the Koch Brothers lobbying machine – has started sending out promotional videos for the bill, warning that the current system leaves students with disabilities "trapped in an inadequate public school." Before the session started, education advocates warned that the anti-public school forces would use exactly such a bill to start the slow growth of vouchers, disguising it as a pilot program. However, in a bad sign for voucher advocates, both SB 115 and House companion HB 1175 remain stuck in committee.