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Friday
Aug302019

820 new Texas laws go into effect in September. Here are some that might affect you.

                   By Matthew Watkins

                    August 29, 2019

                    This Sunday, 820 new laws passed during the 2019 session of the Texas Legislature will go into effect. They range from the huge — a $250 billion two-year budget — to the symbolic — a number of bills to rename parts of Texas highways. Here's a sample of several that will impact Texans' lives:

The 2020-2021 budget: The state's two-year budget calls for spending roughly $250 billion on priorities including public school funding, teacher salaries and early childhood intervention programs.

The "Born Alive Act": This law, House Bill 16, requires doctors to treat a baby born alive in the rare instance of a failed abortion attempt.

A new smoking age: This new law, Senate Bill 21, will raise the age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21.

Defunding abortion providers: This measure, Senate Bill 22, will prohibit state and local governments from partnering with agencies that perform abortions, even if they contract for services not related to the procedure.

No more Driver Responsibility Program: This new law, House Bill 2048, will eliminate this much-maligned program, which critics say traps low-income Texans in a cycle of debt. It had survived past attempts to kill it because money from fines helps fund the state's emergency trauma care system. The bill offers alternative funding sources for trauma care.

New rules for female inmates: House Bill 650 makes a series of changes to state law that are designed to make state prisons more accommodating to female inmates. The bill will ban the shackling of pregnant women, require a trauma screening of each incoming female inmate and require the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to study the effects of visitation policies on women and their children.

Free speech on campus: Senate Bill 18, filed in response to concerns that conservative voices were being stifled on campus, requires schools to allow people to engage in "expressive activities" in outdoor common spaces.

An attempt to stop telemarketers: Starting Sunday, telemarketers will be banned from calling Texans using fake numbers that show up on the recipient's caller ID.

Fighting surprise medical bills: Senate Bill 1264 aims to prevent Texans from being hit with surprise medical bills when their health care provider and insurance company can't agree on a payment. The measure ushers the disputes into a state-overseen arbitration process, keeping patients out of the fight.

Lemonade stands: Neighborhoods and cities will no longer be allowed to enact regulations that block or regulate children trying to sell nonalcoholic drinks like lemonade on private property. Support for this new law grew after police in the East Texas town of Overton reportedly shut down a lemonade stand by two young siblings who were trying to earn money to buy a Father's Day present.

The right to pump breast milk: Starting Sunday, Texas law will make clear that women can pump breast milk wherever they want. Previous law allowed breastfeeding anywhere but didn't specify pumping.

Carry your handgun during a disaster: House Bill 1177 will allow people to carry their handguns — even if they are unlicensed — in the week after the governor declares a natural disaster.

Seller's disclosure for houses in a floodplain: Senate Bill 339 expands the rules for selling property to require disclosures when a home is in a 500-year floodplain, a flood pool, or in or near a reservoir. They must say whether the home has flooded in a catastrophic event.

No more stealing packages: Thieves who steal packages from people’s front porches will start facing stiffer penalties. Penalties range from a Class A misdemeanor to a third-degree felony, depending on the number of addresses mail is taken from.

 

                    "820 new Texas laws go into effect in September. Here are some that might affect you." was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Friday
Aug302019

Analysis: 2020’s real Texas House prize fights are in the general election — not the GOP primaries

                     By Ross Ramsey

                    August 26, 2019

For all of the Republican talk about which GOP legislators are true enough to the conservative flag to deserve reelection next year, the real 2020 elections battle will come after the party primaries are over — in a general election where voters decide which party controls the Texas House. 

This summer’s news about whether House leaders have a list of Republican members they wouldn’t mind replacing could, if it persists, give voters some reason to look to the Democrats. 

Texas Democrats want to knock off enough Republicans in the Texas House next year to win a majority in the 2021 Legislature, which will be drawing political districts for the next 10 years. The House has 83 Republicans and 67 Democrats, so it would take nine flips to put the Democrats in control. 

Last year’s election results exposed opportunities and vulnerabilities for both parties. 

Look at how statewide candidates fared in each of the House’s 150 districts in the 2018 elections. Republicans won all of the statewide races by an average of 7.3 percentage points. But their district-by-district results show where the Republican brand is strong and weak. In 31 of those 150 districts, those statewide races were competitive, meaning the vote spread was under 10 percentage points: statewide Republicans won, on average, in 15 of them; Democrats in 16. In five of those districts, the statewide Republicans prevailed by 5 percentage points or less; in 8 of them, Democrats prevailed by 5 percentage points or less. 

Four House members — Gina Calanni, D-Katy, and Republicans Dwayne Bohac of Houston, Angie Chen Button of Richardson and Morgan Meyer of Dallas — won in districts where their own party’s candidates, on average, were losing the races at the top of the ballot. Another Republican — Sarah Davis of West University Place — is even further out on the plank; she represents a district that statewide Democrats carried by an average of 9.8 percentage points.

The broadest list of prospective flips — those 31 seats where top-of-ballot results in 2018 were closer than 10 percentage points — include 18 held by Republicans and 13 held by Democrats. 

Another list useful for political plotters is candidate-specific: Who won a close race in 2018? A win is a win, of course, but a narrow win is an invitation to either a rematch or a new challenge. And several House members face that risk. 

A total 46 candidates — 17 Republicans and 29 Democrats — were elected to the Texas House without opposition in 2018. 

Another 77 members — 49 Republicans and 28 Democrats — were elected by margins bigger than 10 percent. 

The remaining 27 members — 17 Republicans and 10 Democrats — won by fewer than 10 percentage points; 14 of those — eight Republicans and six Democrats — won by margins of less than 5 percentage points.

And who in the Legislature barely made it past voters last time, winning by less than 3 percentage points? Two Democrats, both of them new to the Legislature: Calanni (also on the other high-risk list) and Michelle Beckley of Carrollton, both of whom beat Republican incumbents last year. Four more Democrats — Vikki Goodwin, Jon Rosenthal, James Talarico and Erin Zwiener — rode in on margins of less than 5 percentage points. 

Six Republicans count as barelies, including Bohac, Button and Meyer from the other list, and Matt Shaheen and Jeff Leach of Plano, and Jonathan Stickland of Bedford, who this year announced he won’t seek another term in the House. Republican Reps. Bill Zedler of Arlington and Rick Miller of Sugar Land each won by less than 5 percentage points.

Republicans outnumber Democrats in high-risk districts, either way you look at 2018’s results. That election doesn’t predict what will happen in 2020, any more than the 2016 results foreshadowed 2018. It does, however, give everyone — candidates, consultants, donors and voters — a map to some of the weak spots on each party’s general election ticket.

Some incumbents in both parties will fall victim to challengers in the primaries; they always do. That’s of interest to the party animals, and in particular, to party animals in the Texas House. But most of the outside interest is not in which Republicans fill the GOP seats in the House, but in which party has the majority there when Texas redraws its political districts starting in January 2021.

 

                    "Analysis: 2020’s real Texas House prize fights are in the general election — not the GOP primaries" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Friday
Aug302019

How a secretly recorded Dennis Bonnen-Michael Quinn Sullivan meeting could raise the stakes for the 2020 elections

                    By Cassandra Pollock

                    August 22, 2019

                    Whatever members of the Texas House think of the recent headlines involving Speaker Dennis Bonnen, the drama curdling the lower chamber has raised the stakes for Republicans and Democrats ahead of an already crucial election cycle — and it could undermine a recent warning the speaker issued about incumbents campaigning against colleagues in 2020.

In July, allegations surfaced that Bonnen, an Angleton Republican, offered a hardline conservative group House media credentials if its well-funded political action committee targeted 10 Republicans in the 2020 primaries. Perhaps more surprisingly, Bonnen allegedly made disparaging comments about colleagues in the process.

The allegations have been largely met with silence among House members who are waiting to see how the situation shakes out. Still, it’s prompted some Republican officials to acknowledge that the issue, should it linger, could distract a party that needs to focus on winning races this election cycle. A number of Democrats, meanwhile, have seized on the chaos, using it as fuel to charge an already energetic group hopeful about coming close or perhaps even flipping the 150-member House in 2020.

If Democrats hold onto the dozen seats they picked up in 2018 and flip an additional nine in 2020, the party would regain control of the lower chamber. Republicans, aware of that possibility, have made clear they’re pushing to take back some of the seats the party lost last cycle.

“The Texas House, you know, we don’t have to lose many seats to lose the House to Democrats,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said in a radio interview this week. And the allegations against Bonnen, he added, “could play a part of that.”

Patrick, like Bonnen and a number of other House members, has called for the entire recording of a June 12 meeting between Bonnen, one of the speaker’s top deputies and Michael Quinn Sullivan to be released. Sullivan, CEO of the insurgent conservative group Empower Texans, revealed he secretly recorded the meeting, which is where his allegations against Bonnen stem from. But Sullivan has not yet released the audio to the public — and may never do so.

“The sooner it’s behind us — however it turns out — is the better,” Patrick told radio host Mark Davis on Monday, after noting that Bonnen had been instrumental in the successes of the 86th legislative session that ended in May.

Last week during a town hall in Tyler, Gov. Greg Abbott gave a similar response, characterizing the Texas Rangers’ investigation into the allegations as “the best thing that could happen” — and emphasized that “we need to get to the bottom of this quickly.” Texas GOP Chairman James Dickey also weighed in, saying in a statement to The Texas Tribune that “we’re 100% focused on 2020 and not letting anything else distract us.”

To be clear, the 2020 general election is still more than a year away and the drama surrounding Bonnen so far has been mostly felt by the 150 members and nearby political observers with a vested interest in what happens inside the House. Bonnen ultimately has to convince his fellow members — not Texas voters — to continue to support his tenure as speaker, which he was unanimously elected to in January.

Some Democrats, though, have tried to cast the allegations as the latest problem inside a party that’s roiling with corruption.

“With backroom deals and Texas Rangers investigations into two of the most prominent Republicans in our state, the modern-day Texas Republican Party has been defined by its corruption and is in shambles,” Abhi Rahman, the communications director for the Texas Democratic Party, said in a statement to the Tribune.

The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, a national group that was already honing in on Texas this cycle, has also waded into the drama.

Last week, when state Rep. Dustin Burrows, who was at that June 12 meeting with Bonnen and Sullivan, resigned as chair of the House GOP Caucus, the DLCC said in a statement that House Republicans are “spiraling” — and that the group “is capitalizing off their chaos.” (Burrows has not publicly commented on the matter since the allegations first surfaced.)

For now, the matter has reached a holding pattern. The Texas Rangers could submit a report of their findings — and whether the allegations should be passed off to a prosecuting attorney — in as soon as a couple of weeks, some House members have suggested. And Sullivan, who has allowed certain Republicans to listen to the recording privately, could still make the audio public at any time.

Bonnen, for his part, has been carrying out typical duties as speaker while also trying to mend fences with certain members who think they were implicated in the allegations. Bonnen also recently apologized to members for saying “terrible things” during that June 12 meeting, though he has not explicitly addressed Sullivan’s other accusations.

Meanwhile, there’s also the question of whether the drama has caused even more confusion about a line in the sand Bonnen drew in May.

“The consequence is simple,” Bonnen told reporters on the last day of the 86th legislative session. “If you campaign against another one of your colleagues, two things will happen to you — if there is the opportunity, I will weigh in against you.” And, he added, “if I am fortunate enough to continue to be speaker, you will find yourself not well positioned in the next session.”

Bonnen’s remarks, which came as a surprise to some House members, were seen largely as an attempt to keep the peace that had been on full display for the past 140 days at the Texas Capitol, and, perhaps more subtly, a move to avoid GOP infighting ahead of a competitive general election cycle.

A number of members said the speaker was simply trying to preserve the unity built by both Republicans and Democrats this year to pass sweeping reforms to the state’s property tax and school finance systems — a point Bonnen himself made to reporters.

“You saw this session,” Bonnen said, “We accomplished unprecedented things. … If members of the Legislature are out campaigning against each other, you then don’t accomplish things like that. … What makes the Texas House, I think, the most dynamic legislative body in the country is that we do not politicize our process. That foundationally starts by not campaigning against each other in the elections.”

Others, though, including Sullivan, openly questioned or even criticized the speaker for his comments, arguing that the goal for both parties in 2020 is to play ball in every competitive district, regardless of whether there is already an incumbent.

In June, Bonnen announced he was launching a political action committee, which he had infused with $3 million from his campaign account, to specifically support GOP incumbents running for re-election.

Bonnen also doled out $50,000 to Associated Republicans of Texas, a group that’s made clear its priority is to keep the House red. That donation, some suggested, was evidence that Bonnen had no problem with House members giving money to groups that planned to aggressively campaign for certain candidates — so long as that incumbent wasn’t donating directly to a challenger or campaigning for them in the district.

Some Democrats also appear to be operating under that framework.

State Rep. Chris Turner, a Grand Prairie Democrat who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, said there was a “difference between getting directly involved in someone’s race versus supporting your party.”

“It’s no secret that Democrats want to help elect more Democrats and strengthen their party, just as Republicans want to elect additional Republicans,” Turner told the Tribune. “I intend to actively support organizations and the Democratic Party — and the [House Democratic Campaign Committee] — in what’s going to be a very important election year.”

To that end, state Rep. César Blanco, an El Paso Democrat who heads the House Democratic Campaign Committee, has made clear the group’s priority this election cycle is to flip the 150-member lower chamber back in his party’s favor.

“Texas is a battleground state,” Blanco said in a news release announcing that the group had just received a $100,000 infusion from the DLCC, the national organization.

 

                    "How a secretly recorded Dennis Bonnen-Michael Quinn Sullivan meeting could raise the stakes for the 2020 elections" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Tuesday
May282019

Texas lawmakers are done. Here are this session's winners and losers.

                    By Patrick Svitek

                    May 27, 2019

                    The 86th Texas Legislature gaveled out Monday after a 140-day session that saw a major breakthrough on two big issues that have long bedeviled lawmakers: school finance and property taxes. But there were other ups — and downs — during the session. Here are several winners and losers in the session's immediate aftermath.

Winner: The "Big Three"

The session's leaders — Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and new state House Speaker Dennis Bonnen — were able to project an image of unity from the start of the session through the end. There were a few perceived slights and strains, but no major disagreements spilled into public view as they did during the last session, when tensions ran high among Abbott, Patrick and Bonnen's predecessor, Joe Straus. While their individual scorecards may vary, Bonnen probably had the best session of the three leaders, making a mostly drama-free debut as speaker whose honeymoon period never seemed to really end. Together, though, the Big Three get credit for maintaining a united front and keeping a bread-and-butter agenda on track through the finish line.

Loser: Supporters of the sales tax swap

In perhaps the only real low point for the Big Three, their proposal to raise the sales tax by 1 cent to buy down property taxes collapsed in a matter of days in early May. It quickly ran into stiff opposition from Democrats — whose support was necessary to pass the corresponding legislation — and prompted skepticism from some on the right, including from Patrick's top ally in the Senate, Houston Republican Paul Bettencourt. The Big Three held a last-ditch news conference to try to save the plan, but it only ran into further trouble hours later, when a devastating analysis came out that illustrated just how much the proposal would benefit those with higher incomes at the expense of those with lower incomes. While lawmakers ultimately found another way to provide property tax relief, the ghost of the sales tax swap will likely live on — in the 2020 election season.

Winner: The center right

If you were the kind of Republican hoping this session would be the opposite of the last one — when phrases like "bathroom bill" and "sanctuary cities" dominated headlines every week — you probably walked out of the Capitol on Monday a happy camper and feeling a little less stressed about your reelection. While the Legislature debated its fair share of controversial, red-meat bills this session, not nearly as many derailed the day-to-day legislative process as in 2017. Chalk it up to the Big Three's unified focus on school finance and property taxes, but also don't forget the November elections, when voters chose to replace two senators and 12 representatives with Democrats. It's hard not to see those results tempering Republicans' appetite for polarizing legislation even before the session began.

Loser: The far right

The voices that have successfully pushed the Legislature further to the right in previous sessions didn't seem to have as much to show for their efforts this time around. While they helped rally opposition to the sales tax swap, they nonetheless ended up unenthused with the final product on school finance and property taxes, questioning whether it was too little too late. A number of their other priorities fell short, such as a controversial elections bill that the House left for dead late in the session and a "taxpayer-funded lobbying" ban that the House voted down. And on a perennial cause of conservative activists, curtailing abortion access, activists watched as several other states passed sweeping restrictions this spring while the Texas Legislature settled for a couple of far less ambitious measures.

Winner: Police unions

After the House struggled to pass two measures abhorred by the top police unions in the state late in the session, the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas and others went on the attack, ultimately getting their way. Their main target was a bipartisan bill to limit a police officer's ability to arrest an individual for low-level crimes, like traffic offenses, a key provision removed from the Sandra Bland Act passed by lawmakers in 2017. State Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, repeatedly sought to advance that provision — as well as another one dealing with public records — but CLEAT fought it every step of the way. The Senate refused to agree to have those provisions added as amendments to its bills, and both measures were ultimately stripped from the original bills in end-of-session negotiations.

Loser: The business community

The session saw the unexpected death of a top priority for the business community: overturning local ordinances requiring private employers to provide paid sick leave. It looked like a slam dunk heading into the session, with Abbott vowing months before the session that lawmakers would invalidate such ordinances, which had been popping up in several left-leaning cities. But the legislation got bogged down in a debate over protecting nondiscrimination ordinances and missed a key late-session deadline, leaving the business community frustrated and looking to the courts as a last resort. The business community might've scored some smaller wins, but on its most visible priority, it left the Capitol on Monday empty-handed.

Winner: Veteran teachers

Experienced teachers are making out the best in the pay raises passed by the Legislature for teachers, librarians, nurses and counselors. School administrators are required to use part of their funding increase to prioritize raises and benefits for teachers with more than five years of experience — though without a specific mandate on exactly how. The actual number will vary widely district by district — in many, falling well short of the $5,000 across-the-board raise Patrick promised at the start of the session — but it is nonetheless a win for the most seasoned teachers in Texas.

Loser: Cities

The GOP-led Legislature has always had a rocky relationship with local governments, though this session seemed to mark rock bottom in recent memory. Republicans pushed through property tax reform — featuring limits on local governments' ability to raise revenue without voter approval — over the fierce objections of groups like the Texas Municipal League, once one of the most influential legislatives forces in Austin. Lawmakers simultaneously took direct aim at that influence with a proposed ban on "taxpayer-funded lobbying." It ultimately failed to pass the House, but the fact that it made it that far underscored some lawmakers' long-building frustrations with local governments and their advocates.

Loser: David Whitley

This one is obvious. The Senate adjourned Monday without confirming David Whitley, Abbott's nominee for secretary of state, embattled since launching his botched voter citizenship review in late January. It generated ample political drama and led to several legal challenges, culminating in a late April settlement in which Whitley agreed to end the review. Abbott stuck by his former aide throughout the firestorm, apparently holding out hope as recently as Monday morning that the Senate could still confirm him. But with Democrats firmly opposed — and on high alert in the home stretch — Whitley never got confirmed, and now Abbott has to pick a new secretary of state.

 

                    "Texas lawmakers are done. Here are this session's winners and losers." was first published at  by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Monday
May272019

Texas legislators had a successful session, but not a historic one

                  By Ross Ramsey

                  May 25, 2019

The buzzword state leaders attached to their school finance and property tax package — “transformative” — is more aspiration than information.

They’re hoping you’ll think highly of the legislation and that you’ll think highly of them for their work on it. But this one is going to have a hard time living up to the hype.

That’s not a crack about what lawmakers are trying to do in the deal they announced with a news conference at the Governor’s Mansion. It’s about whether they did something that will actually change the schools, or ease Texans’ ill will about property taxes, or both.

Is the product better? Is the pricing better? What did we really get?

Look at the results without consideration for the potential points of drama, like the winners and losers on the particulars of the legislation, who got along and who didn’t play nice, what factors deadlines played, and whose political star is brighter or dimmer than it was a couple of days ago.

Look at it without the personalities attached. The $11.6 billion legislation does some big things, particularly if you use dollar signs in your definition of big things:

 

  • Cuts property tax rates
  • Increases spending on pre-kindergarten
  • Cuts reliance on “Robin Hood” payments from wealthier to poorer school districts
  • Puts more state money into education generally, and specifically into the education of low-income kids
  • Gives teachers raises in both pay and benefits — some more than others
  • Increases the state’s share of public education costs.
  • But each of those bullets has a counterpoint.

 

Are the property tax cuts big enough to provide real relief — and if so, will that relief last more than one or two years?

  • The pre-K spending isn’t universal.
  • Despite cutting 47% of Robin Hood, it leaves much of it still in place.
  • The state isn’t obligated to keep up its new funding levels for schools in perpetuity, any more than it was when it cut public education dramatically in 2011.
  • The teacher pay raises fall short of the widely touted Senate promise of $5,000 per teacher and librarian.
  • The state’s share would still fall well short of paying for half the cost of public education in Texas.

State leaders celebrated making a deal on a tough piece of legislation. That’s great, like a banker and a developer having a party when they figure out how to finance and build a building. It was hard, but they wrote their chapter of Art of the Deal. The measure of their work, however, will come from the people who live or work in that building. Most of the time, most of the people affected don’t even know the names of the folks who were at the celebration. Their interest is simple: In the scheme of things, was the building an improvement?

Right now, the spending and the legal changes in the school finance and property tax package are worth a bottle of champagne or two; it really is difficult to find a trail through the dense thicket of politics and policy around these subjects.

But will the changes and the $11.6 billion be “transformative,” and will they be sustainable in future state budgets? Are Texas lawmakers actually putting a new and improved school system in place? A fairer property tax? A lower property tax?

Maybe it will turn out that they really have transformed this essential and expensive area of state government, and quelled rising voter concern about high property taxes in Texas.

Or — and honestly, this is usually the result in matters of public education and taxes — they just fixed it for a little while.

 

                    "Analysis: Texas legislators had a successful session, but not a historic one" was first published at  by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.