Lege Lines: The 84th Session Begins
News from the first weeks of the 84th legislative session
Get ready for another war over the Public Integrity Unit:
Last session, Gov. Rick Perry vetoed funding for the state's corruption watchdog (and, if you need reminding, he's under indictment for doing so). In 2015, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has stripped its funding from the Senate draft budget. By contrast, the House version restores around $6.5 million of the $7.6 million stripped away, but that's "contingent on legislation being enacted by the [84th] Legislature to reform the system of investigating and prosecuting crimes related to state government." The expectation is that some Republicans will yet again try to move the PIU out of the independent Travis County District Attorney's office. However, many in both parties value the PIU's independence, and do not want to see it become part of the Capitol infrastructure. And the unit's enemies in the Lege also lost some of their precarious moral high ground following the recent revelation by the Houston Chronicle that the PIU was forced to cancel an investigation into $20 million in no-bid contracts for the Texas Department of Public Safety awarded to Virginia-based Abrams Learning and Information Systems Inc. because of the Perry veto.
Speaking of no-bid scandals:
Health and Human Services Commission Executive Commissioner Kyle Janek's position becomes more untenable by the day. The former state senator had played a game of plausible deniability as an increasing number of key figures in his office – including Inspector General Doug Wilson and HHSC's chief counsel, former Travis County state Rep. Jack Stick – either resigned or were fired over a 2011 no-bid contract with Austin-based 21CT for Medicaid fraud detection software. Now Gov. Greg Abbott has assembled a "strike force" to review how the contract was awarded, the FBI has mounted its own investigation, and Janek's former chamber mate, Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, has demanded his resignation. That could all be tough news for the agency, which is under its first Sunset Review since 1999.
Four special elections, four run-offs:
Last week saw the latest legislative special election of the session – the race to replace newly elected Senator Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, in her old House District 13 seat. Like the three legislative elections held the week before, it went to a run-off, with no decisive victor. So now all four are waiting for Gov. Greg Abbott to announce run-off dates, and there are added complications. In HD17, failed candidate Linda Curtis is calling out the dogs, from the State Commission on Judicial Conduct to Attorney General Ken Paxton, as she claims that Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape closed certain polling places to favor front-runner John Cyrier over eventual runner-up Brent Golemon. Then in Senate District 26, finalists Trey Martinez Fischer and José Menéndez are both state reps, so either one winning means another special election. None of this is expected to be fully resolved before March.
Systemic school finance may be off the table until 2017 (see "Fate of School Finance Delayed," Jan. 15) but that doesn't mean there's no room for change. This week, Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, and Rep. Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin, filed identical legislation to rewrite the sections of the funding formulas that most damagingly impact small school districts... Lt. Gov. Patrick is expected to get an early start on appointing committees and having them hear bills, potentially as early as this week. Rather than this being him setting the agenda, the House is eagerly awaiting the arrival of hostages – bills they can refuse to pass unless the upper chamber plays ball... Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, is the new chair of the House Republican Caucus, while Rep. Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas, narrowly fought off a challenge to her re-election from Rep. Poncho Nevarez, D-Eagle Pass, who now becomes vice chair... House members will have panic buttons installed in their offices after open-carry advocates made an ugly scene and implicit threats in Nevarez's office. The lawmaker has countered charges that he's an anti-Second Amendment coward by drolly observing that he probably owns more guns than any of the protesters... There's still head-scratching over the unexpected firing of veteran Texas Music Office Director Casey Monahan, and a suspicion among legislators that Gov. Abbott had a successor already lined up... Terrell-based pitmaster Eddie Deen prepared 8,000 pounds of brisket and 170 gallons of barbecue sauce for the Jan. 20 inauguration celebrations at the Capitol (we're guessing Aaron Franklin was busy).