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Tuesday
Nov142017

Texans in favor of all 7 constitutional amendments

Texas voters were in favor of all seven constitutional amendments on the statewide ballot, according to early voting results released Tuesday evening by the Texas Secretary of State’s office.

BY ALEX SAMUELS NOV. 7, 2017

The Texas Tribune

All seven constitutional amendments on the statewide ballot were approved by Texas voters, according to results released Tuesday evening by the Texas Secretary of State’s office.

With roughly 99 percent of precincts reporting, less than 6 percent of the state's 15 million eligible voters had cast ballots for Tuesday's election — a decrease from 2015's constitutional amendment election, when voter turnout was at approximately 11 percent.

Almost 70 percent of voters approved of Proposition 2, which would ease restrictions on borrowing against home equity and allow Texans easier access to their equity. The proposition would also lower the maximum fees that can be charged in connection with home equity loans and would exempt certain charges from the calculation of that maximum.

Proposition 1 would authorize property tax exemptions for certain partially disabled veterans or their surviving spouses — those whose homes were donated to them by charity for less than market value. As of late Tuesday evening, it was passing with more than 85 percent of the vote.

Proposition 6, which would give property tax exemptions to surviving spouses of first responders killed in the line of duty and was one of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's legislative priorities for the 2017 regular session, was winning with 84 percent of the vote.

Turnout in constitutional amendment elections historically has been low. In 2013, only 1.1 million voted. In 2011, only 690,052 Texans showed up — of the 12.8 million who were registered to vote at the time — to vote on 10 amendments.

Any changes to the Texas Constitution must be approved by a majority of Texas voters. Getting a proposed amendment on the ballot requires support from more than two-thirds of both chambers of the Legislature.

Several contentious local issues were also on ballots across the state. With 72 percent of the vote recorded, Austin voters were on their way to approving a $1.1 billion Austin Independent School District bond to improve deteriorating campus infrastructure, address overcrowding and build more than a dozen schools.

In Dallas County, 56 percent of voters were against a measure that would have kept Dallas County Schools, a troubled school transportation provider, alive. And a majority of Buda voters — 67 percent — rejected a city proposal to reintroduce fluoride into their tap water.

Katie Riordan contributed to this report

Tuesday
Nov142017

Analysis: A rules fight, prelude to a Texas speaker’s race

The most liberal and the most conservative members of the Texas House might not matter much when it comes to electing a new speaker — if the decision is made on partisan grounds.

by Ross Ramsey Nov. 3, 2017

The Texas Tribune

Suppose you were the most conservative member of the Texas House — or the most liberal.

You are in real danger of being ignored when it comes to picking the next speaker of the House — the man (probably) or woman (it would be a first) who will replace Joe Straus, R-San Antonio.

Republicans have a strong majority right now, with 95 of the House’s 150 seats. They’re likely to hold a substantial majority next year, given the conservative leanings of Texas voters and the biases built into the political maps from which House members are elected.

And they’re talking about cutting the Democrats out of the election for the next speaker — not a new idea, or an enforceable one, but one that would potentially move the already conservative leadership of the Texas House to the right.

That phrase — “already conservative” — is at the center of the debate. This is the House, after all, that stopped some of the legislation sent over by the decidedly conservative Senate, giving some evidence to those who think the House isn’t conservative enough. It’s also the House that passed one of the most stringent immigration laws in the country — the so-called “show us your papers” bill that would allow police to check the immigration status of anyone they pull over for traffic or other stops. That’s the evidence for those who think the House, while not as far to the right as the Senate, is well to the right of its predecessors.

Now that House, however you’d like to classify it, is deciding what it wants to be after the 2018 elections. Even when the House and Senate are politically in tune, they are institutionally allergic to one another.

Even so, some of the House’s most conservative members would like to move in the Senate’s direction, politically speaking. They think Straus is insufficiently conservative and contend that his support from Democrats in the House is part of the problem.

The Democrats, of course, would love to have a Democrat in the top job or — short of that — the least conservative Republican they can find.

That most conservative member of the House would like to get a speaker from the most conservative part of the membership; one way to get that going is to get the Republicans in the House to agree on a candidate and then to elect that person even if every single Democrat objects.

That most liberal member of the House would rather elect a speaker with all of the Democrats and just enough Republicans to get the required 76 votes; in the current House, that would be 55 Democrats and 21 Republicans.

The House’s Republican Caucus will meet Dec. 1 to talk about the next speaker election and to hear from members hoping the caucus will stick together and vote as a bloc. In a state with at least two oppositional factions within its Republican Party, that’s no easy thing. The conservatives don’t want a moderate; the moderates might have a better chance at electing one of their own by siding with Democrats.

The Democrats are hoping the Republicans will remain split and that the next speaker will have to draw Democratic support.

A GOP working group found that party caucuses in 39 other states choose speaker candidates and vote as blocs. In many of those, as in Texas, it’s up to the full House to finally decide who presides. And here’s the thing: Texas doesn’t have a strong party structure in its Legislature, where majority and minority leaders have real power and where committee chairmanships all go to the majority.

As a practical matter, that leaves state representatives free to vote for the speaker that’s best for them — whether that suits their parties or not. If the caucuses had control over committees or rules, they’d be in a position to enforce caucus preferences for speaker — requiring each of their members to vote with the bloc or else. They don’t.

Still, they’re set to talk about it. Their proposal calls for a “secure vote” in a December meeting of the caucus preceding the January 2019 legislative session. It doesn’t include a recommendation as to whether that would be a secret or an open ballot. And there’s no provision to keep dissenters on board if they don’t like the candidate chosen by their fellow Republicans.

The process, at this point, is more important than the result. Members are testing each other, slowly figuring out who will stand where in a vote 14 months from now that will set the course for House leadership for several sessions to come. Whether the caucus votes together is less important than the direction they take: Right, left or straight ahead. 

 

Tuesday
Nov142017

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus says he will not seek re-election

 

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, a San Antonio Republican, announced Wednesday he will not run for re-election. He did not rule out running for higher office. 

by Matthew Watkins Oct. 25, 2017 

The Texas Tribune

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, a San Antonio Republican, announced Wednesday he will not run for re-election in 2018, a decision that has the potential to upend the political balance of power in the state.

Straus, who has lately been the most powerful moderate Republican in the Texas Capitol, said he will serve until the end of his term. That means there will be a new speaker when the Legislature next convenes in 2019.

His decision immediately created a scrum for control of the House, pitting arch-conservative members who have opposed Straus against more centrist Republicans. Within hours of Straus' announcement, one of his top lieutenants, Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, announced that he had filed to run for the speaker's post. State Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, had previously announced his candidacy, and others are expected to jump in.

Straus has clashed with hard-line conservatives in recent years, not least Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Tea Party leaders and their allies have blamed Straus for killing controversial measures backed by the far right, most notably a bill that would have regulated which bathrooms transgender Texans could use.

"I believe that in a representative democracy, those who serve in public office should do so for a time, not for a lifetime. And so I want you to know that my family and I have decided that I will not run for re-election next year," Straus said in a campaign email.

The announcement prompted gloating by Straus' critics and regret from his allies. Rep. Matt Schaefer,  R-Tyler, who clashed with Straus as chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, tweeted, "It's morning in Texas again!" Straus ally Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, said, "I'm disappointed but I respect his decision."

Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican whom Straus has tussled with in recent months, thanked the speaker in a short statement. 

“Joe Straus has served with distinction for both the people in his district and for the Texas House of Representatives,” he said. 

And Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, praised Straus for leading the way on a number of bipartisan initiatives, including improving access to state mental health services and public school accountability reform. 

"His deliberative approach to public policy will be truly missed, as will the inclusive manner in which he ran the House," Turner said. 

Speaking with reporters after the announcement inside his office, Straus said he finally took the advice he always gives members: After any session, go home and talk to your constituents and family, and then make a decision about whether to run again.

“A confident leader knows it’s time to give it back,” Straus said.

 Asked if he planned to run for any other office in the future, Straus said he is “not one to close doors.” He acknowledged he has received encouragement to run for other offices and did not rule out the possibility of a gubernatorial bid. But he said he doubts he will be on the ballot in 2018.

As for the race to succeed him as speaker, Straus suggested he would not get involved. 

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for people who aren’t members in the Legislature in the next session to really register an opinion on that,” Straus said.

The announcement that he won't run again immediately set into motion speculation about the future of Straus’ top lieutenants. One of his closest allies, Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, who is chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, said in a statement first reported by Quorum Report that he "will pursue other opportunities to serve our great state."

In his statement Straus acknowledged his decision was “unexpected.”

“It’s been decades since someone has left the Speaker’s office on his own terms. But we have accomplished what I hoped the House would accomplish when I first entered this office, and I am increasingly eager to contribute to our state in new and different ways.”

No longer serving as speaker would allow a “greater opportunity to express my own views and priorities,” Straus said, adding that he would “continue to work for a Republican Party that tries to bring Texans together instead of pulling us apart.”

“Our party should be dynamic and forward-thinking, and it should appeal to our diverse population with an optimistic vision that embraces the future,” Straus said in the campaign email. “I plan to be a voice for Texans who want a more constructive and unifying approach to our challenges, from the White House on down.”

If Straus had remained in office and won the speakership, it would have been for a record-breaking sixth term as leader of the chamber. He told supporters Wednesday that he never expected to hold the post.

He was first elected to his House district in a 2005 special election. In 2009, he was elected speaker with the support of Democrats and a couple dozen Republicans who were frustrated with the ruling tactics of the speaker at the time, Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland. The circumstances of Straus’ rise caused many of the state’s staunchest conservatives to distrust him, but he held a firm grip on power for the next eight years.

In 2015, he faced the first contested vote for House speaker since 1975 when Rep. Scott Turner, R-Frisco, challenged him. Straus prevailed in the 150-member chamber with all but 19 votes. This year, he was re-elected to the speakership unanimously, tying with Pete Laney and Gib Lewis for the longest tenures as speaker.

During his time with the gavel, Straus mostly governed with a low profile. His public comments were rare, and he received more attention for the bills he blocked than the ones he championed. His legacy, Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said, will be the restraint he put on the Tea Party in Texas.

"He slowed down, if not blocked, a shift to the right within Republican politics,” Jones said.

Straus and his lieutenants set priorities like setting aside state funding for transportation, planning for the state’s water needs, reforming the state’s child protective services and unsuccessfully pushing to remodel how the state pays for its public schools. Often, he declared that his actions at the helm were taken due to the “will of the House.”

This year especially, he clashed with conservative elements within the GOP over issues like private school vouchers and measures to roll back property taxes. Those proposals — and the “bathroom bill” — were on Abbott’s agenda for a July special session of the Legislature, a list that Straus compared to “a room full of horse manure.”

His most public fight in recent years was over that bathroom bill, which was pushed by Patrick. Positioning himself as the guardian of the Texas business community that vehemently opposed the legislation, Straus was ultimately responsible for its demise.

Citing dire economic and moral costs for Texas, Straus refused to consider bathroom restrictions proposed by Patrick. A stalemate over the issue set him and Patrick on a political collision course that played out in dueling press conferences featuring the two leaders trading blame for the breakdown of the session.

In a story first reported by The New Yorker, Patrick sent Straus a letter near the end of the session proposing a compromise. Straus refused to open it, telling the senator who delivered it to tell Patrick, “I don’t want the suicide of a single Texan on my hands.”

The bathroom bill eventually fizzled out in the House. Straus’ handling of the bill and other hot-button issues prompted talk among conservative Republicans about replacing him. GOP members held a closed-door meeting in August to discuss rules about an impending 2019 speaker vote.

But in the weeks and months following the bathroom fight, Straus appeared to be on a victory tour over the issue, urging business leaders to keep up the fight.

"Texans rejected name-calling and scare tactics, and as a result, we avoided a major mistake that would’ve cost our economy greatly and divided us unnecessarily,” Straus said at a recent speech to the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. "Now is not the time to walk away from the table. Going forward, working together we can do more than just avoiding mistakes."

Morgan Smith, Patrick Svitek, Alexa Ura and Cassandra Pollock contributed to this report.

Tuesday
Jun132017

What constitutional amendments will be on the November ballot?

In order for an amendment to become part of the Texas Constitution, it needs the support of the Legislature and a majority of Texas voters. Here are the seven constitutional amendments that will be on the November 2017 ballot.

BY ALEX SAMUELS JUNE 6, 2017 

The Texas Tribune

Any changes to the Texas Constitution must be approved by a majority of Texas voters.

But first, these constitutional amendments must get on the ballot — by way of "joint resolutions" that receive more than two-thirds of the vote in both chambers of the Legislature. That means a minimum of 100 votes in the Texas House and 21 votes in the state Senate.

Below are the seven constitutional amendments that will be on the November ballot. The Texas Secretary of State’s office will randomly assign each resolution a ballot number ahead of the election.

House Joint Resolution 21

What will be on the ballot: “The constitutional amendment authorizing the Legislature to provide for an exemption from ad valorem taxation of part of the market value of the residence homestead of a partially disabled veteran or the surviving spouse of a partially disabled veteran if the residence homestead was donated to the disabled veteran by a charitable organization for less than the market value of the residence homestead and harmonizing certain related provisions of the Texas Constitution.”

What it means: It would authorize property tax exemptions for certain partially disabled veterans or their surviving spouses — those whose homes were donated to them by charity for less than market value.

House Joint Resolution 37

What will be on the ballot: “The constitutional amendment relating to legislative authority to permit credit unions and other financial institutions to award prizes by lot to promote savings.”

What it means: It would allow banks and other financial institutions to conduct promotional activities — such as raffles — to encourage savings.

House Joint Resolution 100

What will be on the ballot: “The constitutional amendment on professional sports teams' charitable foundations conducting charitable raffles.”

What it means: It would expand the definition of a “professional sports team,” giving more team-connected foundations the ability to hold charitable raffles. 

Senate Joint Resolution 1

What will be on the ballot: “The constitutional amendment authorizing the Legislature to provide for an exemption from ad valorem taxation of all or part of the residence homestead of the surviving spouse of a first responder who is killed or fatally injured in the line of duty.”

What it means: This would give property tax exemptions to surviving spouses of first responders killed in the line of duty.

Senate Joint Resolution 6

What will be on the ballot: “The constitutional amendment authorizing the Legislature to require a court to provide notice to the attorney general of a challenge to the constitutionality of a state statute and authorizing the Legislature to prescribe a waiting period before the court may enter a judgment holding the statute unconstitutional.”

What it means: This would require courts to notify the state attorney general of any constitutional challenges to state laws.

Senate Joint Resolution 34

What will be on the ballot: “The constitutional amendment limiting the service of certain officeholders appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate after the expiration of the person’s term of office.”

What it means: Unsalaried appointees whose terms have ended but who have not been replaced would serve only until the next legislative session has ended.

Senate Joint Resolution 60

What will be on the ballot: “The constitutional amendment to establish a lower amount for expenses that can be charged to a borrower and removing certain financing expense limitations for a home equity loan, establishing certain authorized lenders to make a home equity loan, changing certain options for the refinancing for home equity loans, changing the threshold for an advance of a home equity line of credit, and allowing home equity loans on agricultural homesteads.”

What it means: This would ease restrictions on borrowing against home equity in Texas.

https://www.texastribune.org/2017/06/06/hey-texplainer-what-constitutional-amendments-will-be-november-ballot/?mc_cid=5e25f23be8&mc_eid=9004ae583b

Sunday
Jun112017

Analysis: “Texas Miracle” comes down to earth

In their just-ended legislative session, Texas lawmakers mowed through a list of politically divisive issues that could have lasting effects on how others see a state that's been known for years as a mecca for business.

BY ROSS RAMSEY JUNE 5, 2017 

The Texas Tribune

A “sanctuary city” immigration bill derided as a vehicle for institutional racism. A voter ID law designed to mollify a federal judge who found the existing law an example of intentionally discriminatory legislation. Redistricting maps repeatedly labeled intentionally discriminatory and unconstitutional by a number of other federal judges. Efforts to put more money into the public education system — and to lower local property taxes — died. So did an effort to leash local government property tax increases by requiring voter approval of hikes over a certain size.

And a fight over a “bathroom bill” and “religious conscience” legislation that businesses inside and outside Texas have warned will turn off their employees and their customers and put an economic hickey on the state known for the “Texas Miracle.”

The 85th Legislature has some 'splainin' to do if the state is going to sell that package of social, property tax and education engineering to economic development people. At the very least, state officials have a lot of public relations work to do after a bruising session. They accomplished some things, sure, but they might as well have written the marketing flyers for regional business developers in other parts of the country.

Doing what their primary voters have loudly demanded, lawmakers have risked their long-standing support from the business and economic development folks.

Politics is competitive. But so is economics.

Education, taxes, and intentional discrimination: The state of Texas is flirting with a branding problem.

Economics offered the strongest argument against the “bathroom bill” — legislation that grew from public debate over public school rules for transgender people using restrooms and other facilities that don’t match their sex at birth. In other places — notably North Carolina — related laws prompted companies to cancel expansions, sports leagues at the national and collegiate level to move tournaments and games to other states, and performing artists to cancel shows and concerts.

It wasn’t a threat that something might happen, but a threat that something that had happened — in North Carolina —might happen in Texas, too.

It was, in a phrase that turns the stomachs of people who work in chambers of commerce and visitors bureaus everywhere, “bad for business.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and others who support the legislation dismissed those concerns as overblown and contended that Texans needed protection from a menace for which they presented no evidence.

That’s not unlike voter ID, which targets a rare sort of voter fraud and ignores a much more common one — “harvesting” votes at nursing homes and centers for the elderly.

Opponents of those and other measures see them as cloaks for other objectives, ways to discriminate against transgender people on the one hand, and to discourage minority voters on the other.

And the end of the session isn’t the end of the conversation. It’s more like a change of venue — from the statehouse to various courthouses, the legislative branch to the judicial branch.

The bathroom bill didn’t make it past the Legislature. Maybe it’ll return in a special session, and maybe it won’t. Only your governor knows for sure.

But voter ID made it, and the Texas Legislature’s new version will get a going-over by U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos as soon as this week. She’s the judge who ruled last month that the 2011 law currently on the books intentionally discriminates against minority voters in Texas.

Redistricting lines for the state’s congressional delegation and the Texas House will be in front of judges once again in July. “Intentional discrimination” has been a regular phrase in those rulings, too.

Austin, San Antonio and other cities are already suing the state over the freshly signed sanctuary law, which doesn’t take effect until September.

The business argument that prevailed against sanctuary legislation in 2011 was that it would disrupt the labor pool in Texas, that it was discouraging to the exact kind of immigrants — people pulling themselves up by the bootstraps, to revive an aphorism — the state wants to attract, and that it would undermine community policing that many law enforcement people consider essential in safe big cities.

But the business voice on that issue was buried this year, the victim of a presidential election that emphasized immigration as a problem, a rush of conservative politicians who have noted voter disquiet about border security for years, and a distraction — the bathroom bill — for trade groups that might otherwise have been focused on sanctuary legislation.

School finance, and the local property tax relief that would be engendered by higher state spending for education, died last summer when the Texas Supreme Court said the current system was flawed, but not unconstitutional. That gave the Legislature — which never takes big steps on education spending without court orders — room to do nothing.

The other stab at property taxes — an effort to constrain local increases by giving voters better veto power — fell short, too.

Education, taxes and intentional discrimination. The state of Texas is flirting with a branding problem.

https://www.texastribune.org/2017/06/05/analysis-texas-miracle-comes-down-earth/