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Wednesday
Nov092016

Democrats pick up four Texas House seats

      by Edgar Walters, The Texas Tribune

      November 8, 2016

Texas Democrats notched small gains as the minority party in the 150-member Texas House Tuesday, ousting incumbent Republicans in four races, according to unofficial returns. 

Preliminary results showed Republican incumbents Reps. John Lujan, Rick Galindo and Gilbert Peña losing their re-election to Democratic challengers who had previously faced off against them in recent elections. Democrats Tomas Uresti, Philip Cortez and Mary Ann Perez won the three respective seats, knocking off half of the House's six Hispanic Republicans in their closely-watched rematches. 

And incumbent Rep. Kenneth Sheets of Dallas fell to Democratic challenger Victoria Neave by fewer than 900 votes, marking the conclusion of the state’s most expensive House race. 

Incumbent House Republicans elsewhere were able to fend off Democratic challengers in other tight races. Reps. Linda Koop of Dallas, Cindy Burkett of Sunnyvale, Rodney Anderson of Grand Prairie, Wayne Faircloth of Galveston, J.M. Lozano of Kingsville and Sarah Davis of West University Place in Houston each secured enough votes to return to the Legislature's lower chamber for the 2017 session. 

Only about a dozen races in the Texas House were considered competitive this year, mostly in districts clustered in and around Houston, San Antonio and Dallas-Fort Worth. In the weeks leading up to Election Day, Democrats were banking on the prospect that a poor performance by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, higher voter turnout for a presidential election and the state's ongoing demographic shift can coalesce into a handful of victories for the underdog party. 

While Democrats appeared likely to gain a handful of seats, it is unlikely to make much of a difference in the overall politics of the Texas Legislature's lower chamber. 

For Republicans in close races, a central challenge of the campaign cycle was to walk the tightrope of running on a conservative political record without aligning too closely with Trump. Trump appeared to be leading Clinton overall late Tuesday, but the Republican presidential nominee secured only a 9-point lead in the Lone Star State, a smaller margin than top-of-the-ticket Republicans have historically enjoyed in Texas. 

The Texas House currently has 99 Republicans, 50 Democrats and one independent. Democrats typically have seen their ranks shift up or down by about half a dozen every two years. After the 2012 election, Democrats sent 55 members to the Texas House. After the 2010 election, 49 Democrats were sworn in to the Legislature's lower chamber. 

    This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2016/11/08/texas-house-race-results-election-day-2016/

 

Wednesday
Nov092016

Analysis: Texas politicians merely echoing the message they’re receiving

      by Ross Ramsey, The Texas Tribune

      November 2, 2016

Everybody in Texas politics seems to be messing with each other. 

Former Gov. Rick Perry encouraged U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul to run against Ted Cruz, according to sources who talked to the Trib’s Abby Livingston and Patrick Svitek. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick suggested a special session on public school finance, only to be shushed by Gov. Greg Abbott, who said the Legislature has “plenty of time” to address big issues. 

That session starts in January. Sounds like it’s going to be a lot of fun. 

Don’t get too upset with these folks — the political professionals, especially the Republicans, are getting mixed signals from their voters. The noise at the top reflects the noise in the ranks and the complexity of the problems the state is wrestling. 

Patrick’s point, he said later, wasn’t that he wants a special session of the Legislature, but that he thinks it will take one to cook up a solution to the perennial gnarly problem of paying for public education in the state. The Texas Supreme Court ruled this year that the current setup is constitutional, but also said in any number of ways that it’s a real mess. 

State funding per student has dropped over the last decade. Local school property taxes have risen because of that shifting load and because property values in parts of the state have risen rapidly. The state also has to make sure that students have access to decent education no matter what part of the state they’re in and no matter what the local economic situation is. 

Typically, the courts force the Legislature’s hand, forcing it to choose between state tax increases, local property tax increases and cuts in school spending. With a court ruling to strengthen their spines, the politicians have been able to sell voters on a solution — usually a combination of higher state spending, temporarily lower property taxes, and a higher, more balanced level of spending. 

Nothing is forcing their hand now, and some — Patrick among them, apparently — think it would take the focus and pressure of a special session to squeeze a finance plan out of lawmakers. 

Patrick is also stirring on other fronts, telling businesses and others that he intends to push for regulation of which public facilities — restrooms, locker rooms and the like — transgender people can use. That gets mixed reviews from most Texas voters, but the Republicans — Patrick’s base — are clearly on his side, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll. 

Republican voters have taken sides; Democratic opinions remain too fuzzy to send that party’s lawmakers a clear signal. At the same time, the issue has raised objections from business and sporting interests in other states and could run into opposition when the Texas Legislature takes it up next year. 

That puts some Republicans in a bind, with voters on one side and otherwise friendly businesses on the other. 

The other squabble in the headlines is a pure piece of politics, but it opened an argument that revealed some differences within the conservative ranks. 

Perry and Cruz both ran for president. Perry was out before the voting started. Cruz was the second-to-last competitor to Donald Trump to get out of the race (John Kasich of Ohio was the last one). 

That puts some Republicans in a bind, with voters on one side and otherwise friendly businesses on the other.

Cruz’s final marks on the race were less than spectacular. He spoke at the GOP’s national convention but declined to endorse Trump, angering Republicans who wanted to pull the party together behind a nominee and then move forward to try to beat Hillary Clinton. 

Cruz, having said his position was a matter of conscience and personal honor, reconsidered and finally endorsed Trump last month. But that was right before the salacious recording of Trump and Billy Bush of Access Hollywood was made public — a revelation that shocked some Republicans away from Trump and made Cruz’s change of heart seem ill-considered. 

At the same time, McCaul, an Austin Republican who is the second-wealthiest member of Congress, acknowledged he was being encouraged to take a look at the U.S. Senate, what with Cruz coming up for re-election in 2018. 

When Perry was outed as one of those encouragers, conservatives who view McCaul as a moderate leapt to Cruz’s defense. McCaul didn’t jump into the latest fight, but said last week that the state needs someone in the Senate who doesn’t have his or her eye on their next perch. 

"I think he's spent a lot of time since Day One running for president," McCaul said of Cruz. "I think we deserve somebody in the Senate who is going to be representing the interests of the state of Texas." 

Republicans in the latest UT/TT Poll seem solidly behind Cruz, to a point: They weren’t asked whether they would prefer him or someone else in the next Senate race, but 63 percent said they have a favorable opinion of their junior senator. On the other hand, 81 percent of Democrats have an unfavorable view of Cruz, which explains some of the political stirrings on their end of the woods. 

Wonder why your elected officials seem so confused? Look in the mirror, Texas. 

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2016/11/02/analysis-texas-politicians-merely-echoing-message-/

 

Wednesday
Nov092016

Status quo holds in the Texas Senate

      by Matthew Watkins, The Texas Tribune

      November 8, 2016

While a few new faces will be added to the Texas Senate, the partisan makeup of the upper chamber will stay the same — 20 Republicans and 11 Democrats will take the floor when the Legislature convenes in January.  

The nine contested Senate races on the 2016 general election ballot turned out as expected. In Senate District 24, Republican Dawn Buckingham of Austin beat Democrat Jennie Lou Leeder by a wide margin in the only open seat that was contested by both major parties. Buckingham, who defeated state Rep. Susan King in the GOP primary runoff, will replace Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, who will retire at the end of his current term.  

Buckingham was leading 73 percent to 27 percent with 59 percent of precincts reporting, which includes roughly 20,000 square miles and goes from the northwest suburbs of Austin up to Abilene. 

"I am humbled to be the first woman elected to represent Senate District 24, and the first Republican elected to the Texas Senate from Travis County in our state’s history,” Buckingham said in a statement. “We started this run for the Texas Senate to make a positive impact on the lives of millions of Texans. We thank the Lord our God for His guidance, for our friends who believed in us, and for our family and staff who sacrificed with us along the way.” 

She'll join state Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, among newcomers in the Senate. Hughes, who didn't face a general election opponent, will replace Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, who retired after the most recent session.  

The only other non-incumbent poised to win a seat is Democratic state Rep. Borris Miles of Houston, who will take the Senate District 13 seat vacated by Rodney Ellis. Miles' only opponent was Libertarian Joshua Rohn, who was trailing 93 percent to 7 percent with 88 percent of precincts reporting.  

Three other incumbents faced major party opponents on the ballot. Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, defeated Republican Peter Flores. He led 56 percent to 41 percent with 85 percent of precincts reporting. Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, led Republican Velma Arellano 68 percent to 32 percent with 55 percent of precincts reporting. And Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, defeated Democrat Michael Collins. Birdwell was up 70 percent to 30 percent, with 90 percent reporting. 

The rest of the senators in contested races are cruising to victory against third-party opponents. They are Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe; Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound; Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, and Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio. 

Experts said that the status quo will hold in large part because of the size and shape of Texas Senate districts. Most boundaries are drawn in a way that makes the incumbent Democrat or Republican a huge favorite each election. And the districts are so large and expensive to campaign in that challengers are disincentivized from mounting what looks like a quixotic bid.   

     This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2016/11/08/texas-senate-election-results/.

Friday
Jul082016

State Leaders Ask Agencies to Cut Budgets by 4 Percent

  by Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune

  July 1, 2016

 Texas' top elected officials are asking state agencies to scale back their budget requests by 4 percent, seeking to further rein in state spending for the 2018-2019 cycle. 

In a letter dated Thursday, Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus said agencies should propose the 4 percent reduction as a "starting point for budget deliberations."  

"Limited government, pro-growth economic policies and sound financial planning are the key budget principles responsible for Texas' economic success," the three wrote. "It is imperative that every state agency engage in a thorough review of each program and budget strategy and determine the value of each dollar spent." 

The letter hints at some priorities for lawmakers heading into next session, making several exceptions to the 4 percent cut. They include funds for public schools, border security, Child Protective Services and mental health resources. The exemptions also include public-employee pensions, Medicaid and dollars needed to meet debt service requirements for bond authorizations. Agencies are also being asked to submit information about zero-based budgeting, a practice in which all expenses must be justified in a new cycle. Patrick and state Sen. Jane Nelson, a Flower Mound Republican who chairs the Finance Committee, have been proponents of zero-based budgeting.  

Overall, the letter makes a plea for holding back the growth of state government as Texas continues to deal with a downturn in the oil and gas industry.   

"Due to the slowdown in parts of our economy, some difficult decisions will be required to balance the next state budget, and the process of making those decisions begins now," Straus said in a separate statement. 

The directive to agencies is the first step in the process of coming up with a spending plan for the next two years. Later this summer, agencies will send their requests to the Legislative Budget Board, which will review the proposals ahead of the 2017 session. 

 

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2016/07/01/state-leaders-ask-agencies-cut-budgets-4-percent/.

Friday
Jul082016

Analysis: No Political Benefit if Voters Can't Feel Tax Relief

 

  by Ross Ramsey, The Texas Tribune

  July 1, 2016

 

If a state officeholder of any political persuasion promises to cut your property taxes, demand proof.

They made their most recent attempt during last year’s legislative session with a constitutional amendment increasing the homestead exemption. Their hope was that school property tax bills would drop.

Voters approved the amendment in November, giving the average homeowner a $126 tax break.

Hey, if you can’t make it rain, make it sprinkle.

Lawmakers tried the rain thing back in 2006, rewriting property and franchise and other tax laws to bring relief to taxpayers.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Republican who was Harris County’s tax assessor-collector at the time, watched the benefit get swallowed by “appraisal creep” — the steady increase of property values in a booming state.

This is the problem for Texas lawmakers. They want to get a leash on property taxes statewide, even though there is no state property tax. It requires them to restrain local governments. The local governments, with plenty of evidence, point to expensive state government mandates that drive up their costs.

Your governments, taken together, operate as a circular finger-pointing squad.

Bettencourt and other state lawmakers are working on new proposals for state-imposed limits on increases in local property taxes.

But Texas lawmakers don’t set property tax rates or control increases in the market values of taxable real estate — so they’ve never really been able to keep their promises of relief.

Relief itself has a definition problem. What lawmakers mean isn’t necessarily what you mean. “Relief is when you limit the increase in the tax,” Bettencourt says. “A cut is when you actually lower it.”

What Bettencourt and his colleagues are suggesting is relief.

“The real answer is that the rate of increase becomes livable because what we’re at now is not,” Bettencourt says. “Whether it’s Lubbock, the Valley, you name it, Houston, go wherever you want to go — they just can’t stand the rate of increase.”

Texas puts a heavier load on property owners than all but a handful of other states. We’ve all heard tales of people — particularly those on fixed incomes — whose rising property taxes forced them out of their homes and into cheaper digs. The prosperity in Texas hasn’t helped in this regard, since it has fueled fast increases in property values in many parts of the state.

Politicians in office have attempted to respond to that.

• Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick sent the Senate Finance Committee this homework assignment (among others) to complete before the next legislative session begins in January: “Study the property tax process, including the appraisal system, and recommend ways to promote transparency, simplicity, and accountability by all taxing entities;” and this: “Examine and develop options to further reduce the tax burden on property owners.”

Imagine, if you’re especially good with small numbers, the Texas taxpayers whose need for property tax relief was fulfilled by the increased homestead exemption now written into the state Constitution.

• In the House, property tax relief appears in the instructions on school finance for the Public Education Committee, in a directive on special district bonds and how to pay them off and in House Speaker Joe Straus' charge to the tax-writing Ways & Means Committee: “Review aspects of the property tax system that contribute to rising property tax levies and taxpayer dissatisfaction. Examine whether the current system allows taxpayers meaningful participation in determining local property tax rates. Explore changes to the appraisal process that could improve the accuracy of appraisals.”

• State leaders would also like to know who ate their previous homework, as you can see in another of their interim projects: “Monitor implementation of the increased residence homestead exemption as approved by the voters in Proposition 1. Determine the amount of property tax relief for homeowners, taking into account increases in appraisals and local property tax rates. Additionally, determine the cost to the state to make up the revenue loss for school districts.”

The political benefits of that constitutional amendment were even smaller than the average $126 tax cut. Imagine, if you’re especially good with small numbers, the Texas taxpayers whose need for property tax relief was fulfilled by the increased homestead exemption now written into the state Constitution.

If voters can’t feel relief, there’s no political benefit.

If lawmakers do something property owners can feel, they will feel the result at the polls.

Sure, other things are more important to voters, like immigration and border security. But if you go to town halls with Bettencourt or anyone else in the Texas Legislature, you’ll hear about property taxes.

Maybe nobody in office will ever get credit for mending property taxes, but they are getting the blame. This is going to be a problem for incumbents until voters are pacified.

And it’s going to be a problem for the voters until the lawmakers find a genuine remedy.

 

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2016/07/01/analysis-convincing-texas-property-taxpayers-theyv/.