Lege Lines: Don’t Blame the Death Worm

Texas House wants to kill off “film incentives”

Bullets can't stop it! But legislators can.

Hyperconservatives like Matt Shaheen hate incentives. During last week's House discussion of Senate Bill 1, the draft budget for the upcoming biennium, the GOP representative from Plano railed about Texas taxpayers subsidizing films. To illustrate Shaheen's point, fellow fringer Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, held up a copy of the 2010 film Mongolian Death Worm.

To be clear, Mongolian Death Worm – which was filmed in Texas – is not very good. It's an inept, SyFy channel rip-off of the cult favorite Tremors. But that's no reason to kill a business incentive and art funding program that provably works.

Shaheen's target was the Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program. Often incorrectly referred to as "film incentives," TMIIIP actually functions as a tax rebate program for the statewide production of film, TV, commercial video, and video games. Travis County Democratic Reps. Dawnna Dukes, Donna Howard, Celia Israel, and Eddie Rodriguez jointly protested that the program is heavily audited, provides a sixfold return on investment, and stops Texas from bleeding dollars, jobs, and talent to states with rival programs. Similarly, Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Browns­ville, noted that no one had studied how much of a negative impact defunding TMIIIP would have on future state and local tax revenues.

Shaheen's amendment didn't just defund TMIIIP: It completely zeroed out all funding for the Texas Film Commission and the Texas Music Office. That includes the wages of all 15 employees across the two departments, plus programs like TMO's Business Referral Network, TFC's casting and location databases, and on-set safety education. An amendment to the amendment offered by Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, dedicated the released funds for marketing for the Healthy Texas Women program – not the program itself, just the marketing. That guarantee won over a few more Demo­crats: The amendment to the amendment passed 104 to 37. But the actual amendment lost them; it passed 100 to 40.

While Leach, Rinaldi, and Shaheen are hard-line ideologues, for some of those 100 votes this wasn't really about TMIIIP, or the film commission, or Mongolian Death Worm. Rather, it presented as another volley in the ongoing war between the House and the state executive branch, Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Both Abbott and Patrick support production rebates, so the House cut all funding. However, it wasn't just the low-hanging fruit of film and music (both constant bugbears for Tea Partiers), but all the trusteed programs in the governor's office, including the scandal-shrouded Texas Enterprise Fund.

SB 1 now goes to a joint House/Senate conference committee to create the final budget, which means film and music funding may well come back. Howard noted, "Lots of things that happen on budget night disappear in conference." The Senate originally proposed $10 million for TMIIIP (still a massive drop from the current biennial appropriation of $32 million); Howard has a rider attached to the budget proposing $62 million upon certification of production spending by the comptroller, while there's a third proposal for $46 million. Howard, herself on the House Appropriations Com­mit­tee, called these riders "negotiating tools for the conferees."

Mindy Raymond Benson, executive director of the Texas Motion Picture Alli­ance, is optimistic the conferees will see the benefits of TMIIIP, though on the House floor, "Because we're in with [Abbott's] trusteed program, we got zeroed out." As for poor Mongolian Death Worm, Benson said "it got thrown under the bus." TXMPA is already redoubling its outreach efforts with lawmakers, and has launched a concerted effort to educate constituents of likely conference committee members. Benson said, "We might just pull in $32 million, the same as last session, and at this point it seems like a win for us." – Richard Whittaker

Elsewhere Under the Dome

Photo by Jana Birchum

Surprising no one, U.S. Federal District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos ruled for a second time that SB 14, the state's 2011 voter ID bill, deliberately discriminates against minority voters. No word yet if lawmakers will write a replacement, or continue legal challenges (see "Point Austin," p.8). … Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick demanded an up or down vote from the House on his school voucher plan. He got it: Reps overwhelmingly voted to amend the budget so that no dollars can be spent on vouchers or any similar schemes. … In a victory for the anti-choice camp, during a budget debate Reps. Mike Schofield, R-Katy, and Matt Krause, R-Ft. Worth, diverted $20 million from the Texas Com­mis­sion on Environ­mental Quality to the Alternatives to Abortion program, which oversees anti-abortion, nonmedical crisis pregnancy centers. Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, classified the move as contrary to "pro-life" values, as the swapped-out TCEQ funds were earmarked for improving air quality. If the increase is approved in conference committee, the anti-choice centers would get a total of $38 million in 2018-19. … Also during the budget debate, in an 11th-hour deal, conservative lawmakers swapped an anti-trans bathroom bill measure by Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, for one from Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, that would defund Planned Parenthood. Defunding PP further hurts women who rely on the provider for health services, and does not stop the House from passing a separate bathroom bill. "The bottom line is, no laws protecting Texans should be used as bargaining chips in a late-night legislative poker game," said Lisa Scheps, interim director with the Transgender Education Network of Texas.

Bills on the Move

• The House has approved HB 280 by Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, creating a grant program to reduce physical and verbal violencet against nurses. Accord­ing to data provided by Howard, one in four nurses have been attacked at work, and reports of assaults on health care workers rose 110% over the last decade.

• The House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee had its first hearing on April 11 for HB 2702, – aka the Sandra Bland Act – proposing better education for law enforcement in de-escalation tactics, and an end to "pretext stops."

• The House State Affairs Committee heard HB 1936, which aims to end government transactions with abortion facilities and their affiliates. Bill author Drew Spring­er, R-Muenster, specifically cited Austin Central Health's $1 per year lease fee for Plan­ned Parenthood's space on E. Seventh Street as a target of the bill. No vote was taken.

• The Senate passed three bills from Kirk Wat­son, D-Aus­tin, that seek to protect survivors of campus sexual assault. SB 968 requires colleges to create an online and anonymous sexual assault reporting site. SB 969 grants survivors and witnesses of sexual assault amnesty from school code violations (such as underage drinking) when they report the criminal act. SB 970 requires colleges to implement and publicize sexual assault policies for every student and employee. The bills now move to the House. They're part of a package of five sexual-assault-focused bills. See "Protecting Sexual Assault Survivors," March 24.

• The House State Affairs Committee on Wednesday sent a modified version of SB 4, the anti-immigrant "sanctuary cities" bill, to the full House in a 7-5 vote. The bill punishes cities, counties, and universities that don't fully cooperate with federal immigration policies. Among the committee substitute changes, local governments that show a "pattern and practice" of violating SB 4 will face penalties. – The News Staff

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