Archive for April, 2013

Senate passes Patrick’s charter school bill

The Texas Senate made quick work of Sen. Dan Patrick’s sweeping charter school legislation, today. 

The law expands the number of charter schools allowed to operate in Texas. Currently, the cap is set at 215 charter schools. The bill passed today gradually raises that number to 305 over the next six years. The bill is a scaled down version of Patrick’s original plan, which would have lifted the cap altogether.

The measure passed easily in a 30-1 vote with very little floor debate. It now heads to the house where it likely faces a tougher road.


UT System regents vote to release records, cancel law school review

The University of Texas System board of regents has voted to move forward with the release of documents requested by a joint committee, and to back down on a second review of the UT Austin School of Law.

In a unanimous vote Thursday, the regents agreed to turn over the records “as soon as reasonably possible.” But they stressed that lawmakers must sign confidentiality agreements. The records were requested by a newly reconvened joint committee formed to look into “micromanagement” by the regents. Last week, the board’s chairman, Gene Powell, sent a letter to Attorney General Greg Abbott asking for a ruling on the request. In the letter, he cited attorney-client privilege as a basis for withholding the emails.

The board also voted to cancel a second, internal review of the relationship between the UT law school and the Law School Foundation, specifically involving a forgivable loan program for faculty. The investigation would have cost $500,000 in taxpayer money. Instead, the board voted to allow the attorney general’s office to follow through on its own investigation.

Thursday’s meeting marks a turning point in a series of tense negotiations between legislators and the governor-appointed board of regents. Some believe the board is working to oust UT President Bill Powers. A bill authored by State Sen. Kel Seliger has passed out of committee that would restrict the board’s authority to hire a campus president, and funding for the UT system administration was threatened last week by an amendment filed by State Rep. Jim Pitts.

Committee approves plan to use $6B from Rainy Day Fund

The Senate Finance Committee has approved a plan that would use $6 billion from the state’s Economic Stabilization (or “Rainy Day”) Fund to pay for water and transportation infrastructure, but only if voters approve it through a constitutional amendment.

Sen. Tommy Williams introduced the plan Thursday morning. It earmarks $2.5 billion for water projects and $3.5 billion to improve Texas highways. The money would go toward two separate funds, one of which has already been approved by House lawmakers to address the state’s water needs. Until now, no such proposal dealing with transportation has gained much momentum.

The proposal is the largest withdrawal from the Rainy Day Fund introduced this session. The fund balance is expected to grow to nearly $12 billion over the next two years if left unspent.

The plan would also allow lawmakers to skirt the state’s constitutional spending cap, which is set at 10.71 percent for the next two-year budget.

Legalized gambling measure goes before committee

Proponents for legalized gambling in Texas had the full attention of a Senate committee Wednesday.

Senator John Carona lead the hearing on Senate Joint Resolution 64. It would put a constitutional amendment before voters to authorize the creation of a Texas Gaming Commission. It would also allow casinos to operate within certain areas of the state and legalize slot machines at horse and greyhound racing tracks.

Senator Carona says he’s seeing more support for the idea among fellow Republicans.

“I just don’t believe there are that many conscientious objectors here in the legislature. I think that the objection we do still face in some corners comes strictly for political consideration,” Sen. Carona said. “Because ultimately people know that they and only they have the real decision of whether they go into a casino or not. I mean nobody is taking that away.”

Most of the testimony before the committee came from supporters of legalized gambling, including the Texas Association of Business and casino operators. One voice of dissent came from Rob Kohler, a consultant for the Texas Baptists’ Christian Life Commission.

“There’s a lot of different reasons why you wouldn’t want casinos right here in the heart of Austin, and so there’s a lot of things we consider when this type of thing is proposed to the state,” Kohler said.

The resolution remains in committee.

Welfare drug testing bill moving forward

The Texas Senate voted unanimously today to move forward with a bill that would require some welfare recipients to pass a drug test. The measure, sponsored by Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), would cover all adults applying to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. TANF provides poor people with money for food, clothing, and housing.

If passed into law, applicants who test positive for drug use would be temporarily banned from receiving assistance. They’d be cut off permanetly after three failed drug tests. There is a provision in the bill to provide assistance to the applicant’s children, through a third party.

The legislation will now have to pass in the House of Representatives.

Senators will also also consider a companion bill, filed by Sen. Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands). That legislation would require workers, who already have to undergo a pre-employment drug screening, to undergo a second screening before receiving unemployment benefits. That bill passed out of committee earlier this week and will soon be taken up by the full Senate.

Anti-groping bill back at Capitol

Last session’s controversial anti-groping measure is back before the Texas Legislature. The proposed law, sponsored by Tea Party Republican David Simpson, would have criminalized excessive touching by agents during airport security patdowns.

The bill faced hurdles from its inception. Fellow Republican House Speaker Joe Straus was among those leading the charge against the legislation, calling it “unenforceable and misdirected.” The debate eventually made national headlines in 2011 when federal officials threatened to shut down airports across the country if the bill became law. It eventually died in the Senate.

The House State Affairs committee is hearing testimony regarding HB 80, this afternoon. This session’s version of the bill will likely be less contentious. It clarifies that security agents must be deliberately touching inappropriately, as opposed to incidentally during pat downs.

Capital Tonight: Revisiting vouchers, CPRIT and more

School Vouchers

Republicans and Democrats sparred once again over school vouchers Tuesday — including whether or not a newly proposed law counted as a voucher at all.

A bill filed by Sen. Dan Patrick would partially pay for private school tuition through scholarships funded by tax-exempt donations. The bill has the support of Democratic Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., but Sen. Wendy Davis expressed skepticism.

Another hearing Tuesday looked into oversight of the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas. CPRIT has been under fire since last year, with questions of grant-rigging and even a criminal investigation. Trust, transparency and accountability were at the top of the committee’s list Tuesday.

Equal Under the Law

A bill extending the Romeo and Juliet provision passed out of a Senate committee Tuesday. It would extend the Romeo and Juliet defense to same-sex couples over the age of 14.

Earlier in the day, 600 women visited the Capitol hoping to turn it blue for the day. Blue Ribbon Lobby Day organizers are pushing lawmakers to say yes to Medicaid expansion, restoring public education cuts and returning Planned Parenthood to the Women’s Health Program.

Capital Commentators

Harold Cook and Ted Delisi sat down with Paul Brown to discuss the day’s political news, including school choice bills, CPRIT and new border security legislation filed by Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Michael McCaul.

Agriculture Commissioner Staples applauds border security legislation

Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples is supportive of federal border security legislation filed by Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Michael McCaul, today.

Staples has long been outspoken on the immigration issue and was highly critical of the federal govenrment’s border security plan on Capital Tonight, earlier this year.

He released this statement:

“Landowners are suffering under the daily threat from violent drug cartels while President Obama and his administration continue to falsely proclaim the border as safe. Representative Michael McCaul and Senator John Cornyn have taken a strong step in restoring the sovereignty of America with this legislation to enhance border security. No Texan and no American should ever have to accept a dangerously porous border as the status quo. Our nation needs action.” 

Cornyn, McCaul introduce border control legislation

U.S Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Michael McCaul are calling for tougher border control measures before new immigration reform legislation is enacted. The two Texas lawmakers introduced the bill, known as the Border Security Results Act, Tuesday.

Sen. Cornyn says the bill requires the Department of Homeland Security to “create new metrics to define progress based off the number of apprehensions relative to the total number of illegal crossings.”

“Since 2010, the Administration has failed to provide a metric for determining border security, yet they continue to claim that the border is secure,” Cornyn said. “By requiring the Administration to come up with a clear measurement of security, as well as a timeline for development and implementation, we can ensure that our national security policy is based on real results, and not baseless claims.”

The legislation also calls on the DHS to develop a new strategy within four months of the bill’s passage and to gain operational control of the border two years after that.

Rep. McCaul, who is the House Homeland Security Committee chairman, says the federal government needs to change its patrol tactics. “For too long, we have approached border security backwards – by throwing resources at the problem, to plug the holes on our borders without a comprehensive plan to tactically distribute those resources,” he said. “Until Congress mandates the creation of a national strategy, the Administration will continue to say the border is secure while America’s back door remains wide open.”

Texas’ senators remember Margaret Thatcher

Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz are remembering former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher today.

Thatcher died of a stroke today in her London home. She was the youngest woman to serve in the British Parliament and the only woman to serve as prime minister. Thatcher was 87.

Sen. Cornyn released this statement on her death:

“Formidable in every respect, Margaret Thatcher was a steadfast defender of liberty, a fierce advocate of freedom, and a great friend to the United States.  She never hesitated to remind Americans of our own obligations to the cause of freedom and the need for political courage to do what is right in the face of overwhelming adversity.  Today, Americans and all freedom-loving people around the world mourn her passing.  We will remember Lady Thatcher not only as the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, but as a transformative figure who revitalized her country and stared down tyranny.  She was a loving mother, a devoted wife, and a supporter of liberty.  May she rest in peace, and may we honor her memory through an unwavering commitment to freedom and individualism.”

 Here’s in Sen. Cruz’s statement:

“Today the world mourns the loss of an extraordinary leader, the great Margaret Thatcher.

Utterly fearless, she never once went wobbly. Rejecting the failures of socialism, she won the argument for liberty, and her name is synonymous with the policies that restored peace, prosperity, growth, and stability at a time when it seemed like the United Kingdom had none.

It was truly a Providential blessing that she served alongside President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II — together the three of them stood unshakable, defended humanity, and won the Cold War without firing a shot. Her magnificent intellect and unwavering work ethic helped her become Britain’s first and only female prime minister — an ascent that wasn’t a matter of breaking through the glass ceiling, but simply refusing to acknowledge its existence.”

The world will forever be in her debt; Lady Thatcher was one of kind. Long live the memory of our dearly departed Iron Lady.

Former President George H.W. Bush was president during Thatcher’s final two years as British prime minister. He released a statement from his home in Houston calling Thatcher “one of the 20th centruy’s fiercest advocates of freedom and free markets.”