Lege Lines: Weak Oversight Rules, School Vouchers Pass Senate, and More...
Lege pushes weak oversight rules, school voucher bill sails through Senate, and more...
Ethics? Oversight? LOL!
It was a bleak week for legislative oversight, as lawmakers moved forward to transfer the Public Integrity Unit out of the Travis County District Attorney's office, and started to debate the weakest ethics reform imaginable.
Republicans have wanted to relocate the PIU for years, and the DWI conviction of Travis County D.A. Rosemary Lehmberg ("Lehmberg Sentenced to 45 Days in Jail," April 19, 2013) provided the political cover they needed. On April 20, the House voted out House Bill 1690, which would move the investigation of public corruption cases to the Texas Rangers – a unit of 150 investigators that is already seen by many in law enforcement as woefully overstretched. Then prosecution would be handled in the elected official's home county – many of which are small, without the resources, such as forensic accountants, to which Travis County has access. Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, joined Democrats in saying the bill made lawmakers "a specially protected class" because they will effectively be able to handpick a judge, jury, and prosecutor.
The Senate has its own version, Senate Bill 10, which has already been sent over the House. When it was being hurried out of committee, Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, echoed Simpson in saying it made him and his peers "a special class of defendants."
Then there's SB 19, the sweeping ethics reform that was part of Abbott's priority agenda for the session. The original draft put real teeth into regulations for lawmakers and lobbyists, slowing down the revolving door between the two. What Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, begrudgingly laid out as a committee substitute to Senate State Affairs on April 16 was a shadow of its former self. Backroom negotiations – with seeming influence from both parties – have all but castrated the measure, and Taylor stated he hopes it is strengthened again in the committee process and over in the House.
It's not all a moral void in the Lege: On April 20, House General Investigating and Ethics Committee Chair John Kuempel, R-Seguin, announced an investigation into contracting and no-bid practices at 11 state agencies, in the wake of the massive scandal engulfing the Health and Human Services Commission (see "Lege Lines," Feb. 27).
Vouchers Lite Ride Again
First rule of politics: If you don't want people to think you're up to something, then don't act like you're up to something. Case in point: SB 4, the heavily neutered version of school vouchers. It passed out of committee on April 13, but then languished on the Senate Intent agenda. Strange, considering this is one of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's pet initiatives, and was authored by Senate Education Chair Larry Taylor. Then, suddenly, on April 20, it had a speedy floor debate, passing 18-12. What had changed? The night before, Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, had been in a driving accident, and he was recovering from surgery. Twitter was quickly abuzz with education advocates noting that the vote was conveniently hurried through while Seliger (seen as one of its opponents) was unavoidably detained. If he had been there, and voted no, then under the complicated three-fifths rule, the bill never would have come up for debate.
It's thin gruel for voucher fans: a tax break for bursaries to private schools, and only kids in foster or institutional care could apply for the grants. Taylor even argued that, because it does not use public money, "this is not a voucher program." It may be worse, giving companies a tax credit for sending cash to other companies.
Tellingly, senators rejected an amendment from Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, requiring greater transparency from private schools receiving such grants. Noting that students receiving vouchers in Louisiana are only about half as likely to pass tests as the state average, Rodríguez said, "Without clear accountability that tracks public school standards, parents might not know the school isn't meeting their expectations."
However, he may still win the day. Taylor rejected all amendments because, as he noted, the bill is on a rocky road to the less voucher-friendly House. Texas AFT President Louis Malfaro said, "Rest assured that Texas House members are paying attention and taking note of the feeble excuses offered by [Taylor] for refusing to repair these defects in his bill."
Guns, Fracking, and Local Control
There's a host of bills that would limit local elected officials from doing their job (see "Lege Lines," April 17), and two of the most egregious passed out of the House over the last week. They would have passed sooner, but sharp-witted Democrats noticed problems with them when they were first debated, so back to committee to be fixed they went.
But stalling tactics stall out, so on April 20 the House voted out HB 40, the infamous statewide restriction on local fracking bans. The bill was softened in the committee process, addressing some (if not all) of the concerns of the Texas Municipal League. Still, Environment Texas Director Luke Metzger called it "a dangerous power grab by Big Oil to stomp out the rights of communities to protect themselves from the worst impacts of dirty drilling."
That same day, the House passed HB 910, the handgun open carry bill, by a 101-42 vote. Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, proposed an amendment: let cities with over 750,000 population (Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio) hold referendums on whether residents want handguns on hips. This was voted down, 97-45, and the measure now heads to the Senate.
The Senate approved SB 3, its border security bill, on April 20. Expect tough negotiations with the House: Both chambers plan ramping up the DPS presence, but the Senate would retain National Guards on the border for an indefinite period... The House Public Education Committee has voted out HB 1759, the latest attempt to fix school finances.