83rd Legislative Session

Dewhurst, Straus issue interim committee charges

The leaders in the Texas House and Senate laid out new agendas for their respective committees during the interim legislative session. This is the work lawmakers will be tasked with accomplishing before the legislature reconvenes in 2015.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst announced interim charges for the Senate Committee on Veteran Affairs during the annual Department of Texas Veterans of Foreign Wars Mid-Winter Conference. He is calling on lawmakers to study ways to improve access to support services, monitor the implementation of new mental health legislation and to study the impact of federal spending cuts on local veterans programs.

“Here in Texas, we honor our veterans because of their sacrifices and service to our country and the positive impact their leadership, experience, and education have on our economy,” Dewhurst said. “I am committed to making Texas the most vet-friendly state in the country.”

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus also laid out his interim charges to help the committees prepare for the 2015 legislative session. According to the Speaker, the 44-page list is based on requests and suggestions made by House members. Among them is a call for House members to investigate the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 people.

“Today’s interim charges, combined with the initiatives that I will announce in the weeks to come, will help Members prepare to tackle serious challenges in the next session,” said Straus. “I am confident that we can continue to address these issues in a responsible, bipartisan way.”

You can read the full list of charges below.


83rd Interim Charges

TDI announces stricter health insurance navigator rules

People tasked with helping Texans sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act will now have to undergo an additional 20 hours of training. The Texas Department of Insurance announced the new regulations Tuesday. The training will be in addition to the 20-30 hours of already mandated by the federal government.

In September, Gov. Rick Perry directed the department to create state-specific rules for navigators. Perry initially asked for an additional 40 hours of coursework. He also wanted require applicants to show proof of citizenship and submit to fingerprinting and periodic background checks. The changes announced today fall short of Perry’s directive.

Opponents to the changes have argued that additional state regulations would be cost prohibitive and would affect nonprofits’ ability to help people sign up for health insurance.

Rep. Lon Burnam was among those opposed to the changes. In a statement Tuesday, Burnam said the TDI took a scaled-back approach after his office threatened to release documents that showed the original proposal was made for political, not public health reasons. “We shouldn’t play political games with people’s healthcare,” Burnam said. “There was no justification for the original proposal other than conservative politics, so I’m glad TDI has relented and come up with training requirements that are at least somewhat logical.”

Navigators must now complete the additional training by May 1. The deadline to sign up for health insurance and avoid paying a penalty is March 31st.

Lawmakers to investigate ties between earthquakes and fracking

The Texas Legislature is taking steps to determine if earthquakes in North Texas are tied to oil and gas drilling. House Energy and Energy Resources Committee Chairman Jim Keffer named three Republicans and one Democrat to the ‘Subcommittee on Seismic Activity.’ It will be led by Denton Republican Myra Crownover.

The committee with work with the Railroad Commission to look into a rash of earthquakes in Azle, which is located about 50 miles north of Dallas. The area has experienced more than 30 small earthquakes since November. Residents in the area have voiced concerns over cracked walls, foundation damage and water leaks. Many attribute the seismic activity to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. 

“The Texas oil and gas industry is the envy of the nation and the world. All Texans benefit from the safe production
of our natural resources,” Crownover said. “It is our job as legislators to make sure that we address the concerns surrounding recent
earthquake activity so that all Texans can sleep easy, confident that the oil and gas industry continues to operate in a
safe and responsible manner.

The Railroad Commission has not acknowledged the link, however recent studies by Cliff Frohlich of the Institute for Geophysics at the University of Texas suggest the quakes are caused by the wastewater deposited deep in the ground after it’s used to extract oil and gas. Earlier this month, the Railroad Commission announced it will hire a seismologist to study any possible connection.


Comptroller recommends $50 million in additional water funding

Texas Comptroller Susan Combs released a new report on the economic impact of the drought, Tuesday. The 24-page Texas Water Report: Going Deeper For The Solution explains the state’s struggle to keep up with water demands as the population grows. The report projects a massive shift from agricultural water usage to municipal water usage over the next 50 years and emphasizes the need for conservation and new ways to create reliable sources of drinking water.

Combs praised the passage of Proposition 6, which will draw $2 million from the state’s rainy day fund for water projects, but says it is just a step toward assuring the state’s future water supply. The report recommends $50 million in additional water funding, which would have to be approved by the state legislature. Half of that money would go toward a grant program to help water authorities and other major users improve efficiency and reduce waste. The other $25 million would establish a prize framework to award research dollars for successful innovative water technology.

“Like the new approaches in Texas energy production, we need a revolution in water technology,” Combs said. “We need a breakthrough in this field, and some of our state funding should be used for innovative technologies which increase conservation.”

On Wednesday, Comptroller Combs will be a guest on Capital Tonight to talk more about the drought’s economic impact on the state.


Reaction mixed over abortion ruling

The political reaction was quick to today’s court ruling that parts of the state’s abortion law are unconsitutional.

Republican Gov. Rick Perry indicated the abortion debate does not end with Monday’s decision.

“Today’s decision will not stop our ongoing efforts to protect life and ensure the women of our state aren’t exposed to any more of the abortion-mill horror stories that have made headlines recently,” the governor said in a press release. “We will continue fighting to implement the laws passed by the duly-elected officials of our state, laws that reflect the will and values of Texans.”

Democratic State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio also issued a statement soon after the ruling.

“I’m grateful that a Texas court agreed today that House Bill 2 would have had harmful effects on women’s access to care and affirmed that the Republican-controlled Legislature went too far in its attacks on women” she said. Van de Putte is considering a run for lieutenant governor.

Poll: Texans overwhelmingly support water amendment

A Texas Tribune / University of Texas poll released today shows a majority of Texans are in favor of a constitutional amendment to  pay for water projects. The poll shows 52 percent of people would vote in favor of water funding. That’s compared to 19 percent of people who are opposed and 24 percent who have not decided.

The amendment, known as Proposition 6, would pull $2 billion from the economic stabilization fund to pay for infrastructure. The measure has drawn bipartisan support from the state’s top leaders, including Gov. Rick Perry and House Speaker Joe Straus.

Supporters have been working to get the word out about the ballot measure, but it seems they might still have a lot of work to do. The TT/UT poll also shows only 9 percent of voters have heard a lot about the amendments they’ll be asked to approve in November. About 43 percent have heard some information and 32 percent said they haven’t heard very much. Fifteen percent responded that they have heard nothing at all.

Poll: Most Texans think marijuana should be legal

Most Texans support legalizing marijuana for adults, according to a Public Policy Polling survey released Tuesday. The poll shows 58 percent of registered voters are in favor of legalizing the drug, taxing it and regulating it like alcohol. That is compared to 38 percent who said they are opposed.

The poll also shows a majority of Texans support relaxing criminal penalties for people who are caught with less than one ounce in their possession. Of those polled, 61 percent said they would be in favor of replacing criminal penalties with civil offenses punishable by a $100 fine. Thirty percent said they were opposed.

“Marijuana prohibition has been just as big a failure as alcohol prohibition,” said Marijuana Policy Project executive director Rob Kampia. “Most Texans agree that marijuana sales should be conducted by legitimate businesses instead of drug cartels in the underground market.”

Kampia, who was a guest on Capital Tonight earlier this year, has supported measures in the Texas legislature to eliminate jail time for minor offenses. That legislation failed to gain any traction last session.

Updated: Patrick invites Ratliff to CSCOPE debate in Tyler

Updated to add response from State Board of Education Vice Chair Thomas Ratliff

The stage could be set for a much-talked-about, hypothetical CSCOPE debate. Sen. Dan Patrick and State Board of Education member Thomas Ratliff have been sparring over the merits of the online curriculum program through press releases and Facebook posts since July.

CSCOPE was created as an online tool to help teachers meet state education requirements. The program drew criticism from conservative groups who claimed students were being subjected to “anti-American” teachings through some of the lesson plans. Sen. Patrick led a successful effort to do away with the program last session.

SBOE Vice Chair Thomas Ratliff has been among CSCOPE’s supporters, and has encouraged teachers to download the lessons before they are taken offline. “The districts can, and should, continue to use that as one resource,” he said in a Capital Tonight interview. “It’s not the only resource, but when 80 percent of the districts are using it, they don’t have the ability to recreate a curriculum with less than six weeks until the start of school.”

Last month, Sen. Patrick issued a Facebook challenge to anyone who wanted to debate the merits of the program. Ratliff accepted his offer, saying he’d take Patrick on “anytime, anyplace.” Now, Patrick is setting a time, and a place. In a press release sent Wednesday, Patrick invited Ratliff to publicly debate the issue on August 24 in Tyler.

“I’ll give him the home field advantage, but I will not concede the high ground,” Patrick said. “The CSCOPE curriculum was an ill-conceived program, shrouded in secrecy. When I shined a light on it during the Legislative Session; it could not withstand close scrutiny.” 

Update: Ratliff told Capital Tonight this afternoon that he is willing to take Patrick up on his offer, as long as certain conditions are met. “I look forward to a substantive debate with Senator Patrick, not a political discussion with candidate Patrick,” Ratliff said. “I want to make sure it is a thoughtful, meaningful debate. Not just a bunch of soundbites.” 

There are still details that need to be worked out, including the format. Ratliff says he is proposing a three person panel that would include an educator, a conservative and a neutral moderator, such as a journalist.

Ratliff also expressed disappointment that the debate would be held at a Tea Party event and said he wished it could take place closer to Austin. We do want to note that we at Capital Tonight offered to host this debate. Sen. Patrick declined that invitation.

Gov. Perry officially calls third special session to order

As promised, Gov. Rick Perry today called lawmakers back for another special session to tackle transportation funding. So far, this third overtime deals specifically with funding road projects.

There have been calls from lawmakers to add tuition revenue bonds, campus carry laws and CSCOPE to the agenda, as well. Gov. Perry could still add those, at any time.

He issued this statement, this afternoon:

“When it comes to transportation, the stakes facing our state could not be higher, and a failure to act now could take years – if not most of a decade – to correct, as traffic congestion increases and harms our quality of life. A plan was on the table that would have taken a significant step toward improving our roads and highways using existing revenue. Inaction is a Washington-style attempt to kick a can down the road – but everybody in Texas knows we’re rapidly running out of roads to kick that can down. For those reasons, I’m calling the Legislature back into another special session immediately.”



House adjourns, waits for third special session to begin

Less than an hour after convening on their last scheduled day of work, House lawmakers adjourned Sine Die and waited for a third round to begin.

The move leaves transportation funding in limbo once again, after House lawmakers failed to gather enough votes to get a last-minute compromise passed Monday. The latest deal would have diverted half of the money destined for the state’s Rainy Day Fund to the State Highway Fund and allowed the Legislative Budget Board to set a minimum balance to ensure the emergency fund wouldn’t get drained.

Speaker Joe Straus confirmed rumors that the governor would call another special session immediately after the current one. Some lawmakers, including Rep. Joe Pickett, said they were hoping for some time in between to come up with a better plan.

On the Senate side, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst had indicated he had enough votes to get the funding measure passed today. But with no chance of passage in the House, it’s likely the Senate will put and end to the current session as well.

Gov. Perry hasn’t indicated what, if any, other issues he will add to the call.