84th Legislative Session

Daily Digest | May 7

Our Daily Digest is a lunchtime look at the stories we have our eyes on at the Capitol and beyond. Here’s what we are watching today:

Governor Greg Abbott’s priority pre-kindergarten legislation could go up for a second chamber vote today. House Bill 4 would give at least $130 million to schools to help bolster pre-kindergarten programs, although they would have to already be meeting certain state quality standards to receive the money. Critics of the bill have come from both sides; some argue it should be bigger and include full-day pre-kindergarten programs, others question the need for the program at all. The bill had stalled for weeks after getting House approval, and was the subject of a scathing letter from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s grassroots advisory board. The subsequent fallout between chamber leadership has been pointed to as a turning point in this legislative session.  If the Senate approves the bill, the House would have to agree with any changes that are made, then it will go to the Governor’s desk for a signature. Governor Abbott named pre-kindergarten education his first emergency item in his State of the State speech.

Another high-profile bill started its journey through the second chamber today. House Bill 80 would create a statewide ban for texting while driving. If approved, it would be a misdemeanor, punishable by a $99 fine, to send or receive texts or emails or check social media sites while driving. Talking on a cell phone while driving would not be affected, though that is already banned in many cities due to citywide ordinances. Supporters say it would make roads safer and iron out differences in the patchwork of different rules across the state, while opponents have questioned whether the law is enforceable. The bill went before the State Affairs Committee this morning, and is expected to get a committee vote next week. Former Governor Rick Perry vetoed a similar bill, but Governor Abbott has not commented on his support for the bill.

Social media continues to buzz about a surprise committee vote last night to fully legalize marijuana in Texas. House Bill 2165 was approved on a 5-2 committee vote, but faces an uncertain future in the full chamber. We sat down with the bill’s author, Rep. David Simpson (R – TX House District 7) earlier this session to talk about the bill. You can watch that interview here.

For more on all of these stories, check out tonight’s episode of “Capital Tonight.” We’re continuing our “New Texas” series with a discussion about our dwindling water supply. We’ll be joined by Rep. Eddie Lucio (D – TX House District 27), who serves on the Natural Resources Committee and the Land and Resource Management Committee, to talk about water-related legislation this session. Plus, political analysts Harold Cook and Ted Delisi will join us to give their take on the week’s headlines under the dome. Tune in tonight at 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. on Time Warner Cable News.

Daily Digest | May 6

Our Daily Digest is a lunchtime look at the stories we have our eyes on at the Capitol and beyond. Here’s what we are watching today:

Karina Kling is exploring the increasing momentum for abortion bills in this legislative session. After months without much action on this issue, several bills are moving forward. Rep. Debbie Riddle’s (R – TX House District 150) House Bill 416 is expected to go up for a vote today. That would require abortion clinic workers to undergo human trafficking training. That comes after Tuesday’s vote in the Senate on the first major abortion bill of the session. Senate Bill 575 would prevent insurance plans from covering abortions unless it’s a medical emergency. Republicans say it prevents other insured Texans from paying for a procedure they believe is morally wrong, while critics call it more unnecessary restrictions for a state with some of the strictest abortion laws in the country already. That measure now heads to the House, which has already passed a similar bill out of committee. This was a major issue during last session, culminating in then-State Senator Wendy Davis’ filibuster that launched her into the national spotlight.

A Texas political icon, whose career ended in controversy, has died. Former U.S. House Speaker Jim Wright served as a Democrat in Congress for 34 years. Wright became the first House speaker ever to step down because of an ethics scandal back in 1989. Wright was charged with violations of House rules on reporting of gifts, accepting gifts from people with an interest in legislation, and limits on outside income. He never admitted wrongdoing and accused his critics of forcing him out due to partisan politics. Wright also spent nearly a decade in the Texas Legislature. He moved back to Fort Worth after he left Congress, and stayed there until his death Wednesday. He was 92 years old.

Earlier this week, House Bill 507 was voted out of committee. The bill, by Rep. Joe Moody (D – TX House District 78), would decriminalize small amounts of marijuana possession. It’s the farthest this type of legislation has advanced in the Texas Legislature. That bill, combined with a renewed push for legalized medicinal marijuana, has turned this session into a possible turning point for marijuana reform in Texas. Our LeAnn Wallace is exploring the future of the bills.

For more on all of these stories, check out tonight’s episode of “Capital Tonight.” We’ll be joined by Rep. Moody, the author of that marijuana decriminalization bill. He will tell us about the vote’s significance, and the bill’s future. Plus the Quorum Report’s Harvey Kronberg will be with us. Tune in tonight at 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. on Time Warner Cable News.

Daily Digest | April 28

Our Daily Digest is a lunchtime look at the stories we have our eyes on at the Capitol and beyond. Here’s what we are watching today:

The nation’s highest court is hearing arguments on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage bans today, in a case with major implications here in Texas. They are hearing from attorneys on both sides about whether same-sex couples should be allowed to be married. The court’s ruling would set a nationwide precedent, including here in Texas, one of 13 states where same-sex marriages are still illegal. A court challenge against Texas’s ban is currently held up in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, but those judges are expected to wait for the Supreme Court to rule.

The full Texas House chamber gave initial approval to its $4.9 billion tax cut plan today, voting 141-0 in favor of the bill. House Bill 31 would cut the the state sales tax, and is expected to save the average family of four $172 per year. The current state sales tax rate in the state is 6.25%, not including any extra taxes established by counties. That would fall to 5.95% under Rep. Dennis Bonnen’s proposal. It’s a drastically different approach than the Senate plan, which focuses on property tax cuts, and has become a major line in the sand between the two chambers this session. They’re also expected to debate House Bill 32, which cuts the margins tax paid by businesses. The Senate plan also includes a so-called franchise tax cut, an item Governor Abbott demanded by veto threat at the beginning of the session. Opponents of the tax cut plans say the money is better spent on things like roads or education funding.

In other news, leadership from both chambers met for the first time today to try to come to a compromise on the budget. The conference committee on House Bill 1 met for about 30 minutes today with the Legislative Budget Board as they try to work out their differences. And a House committee heard testimony today on plans to legalize medicinal marijuana in Texas. The proposal would legalize marijuana for treatment of chronic illnesses like PTSD and epilepsy, and would set up a licensing system for growers and dispensaries.

Tonight on “Capital Tonight,” Chuck Smith with Equality Texas will evaluate what the attorneys and justices had to say in the Supreme Court today. Plus, political strategists Harold Cook and Ted Delisi will give their takes on the week’s headlines at the State Capitol. Tune in to Time Warner Cable News at 7 p.m. and 11 p.m.

Daily Digest | April 23

Our Daily Digest is a lunchtime look at the stories we have our eyes on at the Capitol and beyond. Here’s what we are watching today:

After a reported boiling point between the “Big Three” first reported by Texas Monthly, all eyes are on a perceived divide between the leadership in the two chambers at the Capitol. Our Karina Kling will be looking into the political timetable for the Legislative leadership, and what it means for key bills heading into the last month of the session.

Two high-profile bills are on the list of legislation on the Senate’s agenda. Senate Bill 19, regarding prosecution of public corruption cases, is in the spotlight. The Quorum Report’s Harvey Kronberg told us on last night’s show that frustration is growing in the Governor’s Mansion over ethics reform, and this bill could be on its way to a veto if it remains in its watered-down form. The second bill, Senate Bill 185, is the so-called “sanctuary cities” bill. It would revoke state funding for police departments in those cities that do not ask detainees about their immigration status. The bill’s author says he wants to enforce immigration laws, while opponents say the bill would turn Texas into an anti-Latino “show me your papers” state, and would make the community less likely to cooperate with law enforcement.

We have two members of the House joining us on “Capital Tonight.” House Public Education Committee chairman, Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, whose school finance reform bill was sent to the full chamber earlier this week, will join the show to explain how he plans to fix the funding formula for Texas public schools. Then, the newest face in the lower chamber will join the show. Ina Minjarez won Tuesday’s House District 124 runoff election, and will take over the last open seat in the Legislature. We will talk to the representative-elect about the awkward timetable of coming into the session so late, and ask what she wants to accomplish for the city of San Antonio in the remaining days of the 84th Legislature.

All this, plus political strategists Harold Cook and Ted Delisi will give their takes on the week’s headlines on “Capital Tonight.” That’s at 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. on Time Warner Cable News.

Daily Digest | April 21, 2015

Our Daily Digest is a lunchtime look at the stories we have our eyes on at the Capitol and beyond. Here’s what we are watching today:

Governor Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton are the guests of honor at the unveiling of the new headquarters of the right-leaning think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation. The new six-floor building is located about two blocks from the Capitol grounds. Their speeches were followed by presentations from big-name donors like Red McCombs, Jim Henry and Dr. Jim Leininger.

The House Public Education Committee’s plan to fix the state’s school finance system is on its way to the full chamber. Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock’s $3 billion dollar plan would increase funding for 94 percent of kids in the state, and would increase per-student funding to poorer districts more than it does wealthy ones. The bill passed out of committee on a 7-0 vote. It comes after massive cuts two sessions ago, and a court ruling that the current funding formula is unconstitutional. That ruling is now on appeal with the Texas Supreme Court.

The reactions to controversial bills approved in both chambers yesterday are still coming in. Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo voiced his opposition to an amendment to the House open carry bill. And public school advocacy group Raise Your Hand Texas released a cartoon video opposing the Senate’s school scholarship tax credit plan, which opponents call a back-door plan to school vouchers. The Quorum Report’s Harvey Kronberg talked about all this and more last night on our show, and you can watch that here.

And a lighthearded end of the day at the Capitol. The House Culture, Recreation and Tourism committee will meet to discuss proposals to name several state superlatives. That includes everything from the cowboy hat as the official hat to naming the western honey bee as the official State Pollinator of Texas.

On tonight’s episode of “Capital Tonight,” Texas Oil and Gas Association President Todd Staples joins the show. He’ll discuss the ban on local fracking regulations, and give us an update on the Texas oil and gas industry. Plus our Capital Commentators — political strategists Harold Cook and Ted Delisi — will give their take on the week’s headlines.


Daily Digest | April 20, 2015

Our Daily Digest is a lunchtime look at the stories we have our eyes on at the Capitol. Here’s what we are watching today:

The House is considering a bill to move public corruption cases out of the jurisdiction of the Travis County Public Integrity Unit. House Bill 1690 would transfer investigative powers for corruption cases from the PIU to the Texas Rangers, and would allow lawmakers to be tried in their home county’s court. Republicans across the state have long voiced their concern about members of their party getting a fair shake in Democratic-leaning Travis County. Critics of the bill say having lawmakers tried in their home counties could lead to potential conflicts of interest. The bill, which has already passed in the Senate, was taken up in the full House chamber last week, but was derailed by a point of order. Capital Tonight’s Karina Kling will have an update on the vote tonight.

We’re watching two major bills that have been on the Senate’s calendar since early last week but still haven’t come up for a vote. The first is the school voucher bill, Senate Bill 4. The bill, which was a major campaign point for Tea Party-backed Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, would allow parents to get taxpayer-subsidized state funding to remove their children from struggling schools and send them to private alternatives. Supporters say it allows parents to choose what education their child can get, but critics say it will hurt the financially-struggling public school system. The other legislation would ban so-called “sanctuary cities.” Sanctuary cities are municipalities where police officers can’t ask a detainee about their immigration status. Senate Bill 185 would withhold state funding from those police departments. The bill’s author, Sen. Charles Perry (R – TX Senate District 28) says the bill aims to enforce immigration laws, but opponents argue it opens the door for racial profiling.

And finally, the full House is following the Senate’s lead today in giving final approval to the lower chamber’s open carry bill. House Bill 910, which would allow concealed hand gun license owners to openly carry handguns, passed a preliminary vote Friday. Meanwhile, legislation allowing licensed handgun owners to carry their concealed weapon on college campuses has also passed in the Senate. Similar legislation awaits a full vote in the House. And a third gun bill, so-called constitutional carry, continues to stall in both chambers.  Our LeAnn Wallace will explain what’s legal now, and what could become legal by the end of the session.

Join us tonight on “Capital Tonight.” Our guest is Williamson County Rep. Larry Gonzales (R – TX House District 52). He’ll discuss his role on the House Appropriations Committee and what he wants passed before the end of the session. Plus, Harvey Kronberg with the Quorum Report will join us for his weekly analysis. That’s on Time Warner Cable News at 7 p.m. and 11 p.m.

Grand Jury Calls for Removal of Regent Wallace Hall

A Travis County grand jury is calling on the University of Texas System to remove Regent Wallace Hall, Jr. A four-page report released Tuesday fell short of indicting the UT system regent, but said, “we are appalled at the Regent’s unaccountable and abusive behavior,” and added that it “is in the best interest of the state” to remove Hall from office.

The grand jury had been asked to look into allegations of abuse of office, misuse of information and official oppression against Hall after he conducted a personal investigation into UT Austin President Bill Powers. The grand jury said Hall’s “abusive excess” overwhelmed the system with 800,000 pages of open records requests, and added he tried to avoid paying for the report that cost about a million dollars to complete.

“Outrageously, after requiring university staff to double their effort to fulfill these parallel requests, he actually requested not to be charged (like other private citizens are) for the cost of his private open records requests.”

The report accuses Hall of avoiding transparency and accountability by communicating orders verbally to avoid a paper trail, and said his actions led to leaks of confidential student information. The report says Hall’s “over leveraging of his power resulted in lost talent, lowered morale, exposure of student information and unreasonable expenses.”

The grand jury also recommended changes in protocols for regents in the future, including making regents pay for open records requests and establishing consequences for distributing confidential data. It also suggests requiring regents to use university email accounts for all official business like other employees.

A House Committee censured Regent Hall last year due to his investigation, and several lawmakers called for his resignation. Hall’s supporters, including then-Governor Rick Perry who appointed him, said Hall’s investigation showed irregular admissions practices at UT-Austin. Hall got some vindication from an independent investigation released earlier this year that said it did find some applicants who had been accepted to UT despite objections from the admissions office due to the insistence of UT-Austin President Bill Powers. But Powers defended those actions, saying it was a common practice at colleges around the country and was in the long-term interest of the university. System Chancellor William McRaven did not discipline Powers after that report.

Rep. Dan Flynn (R – TX House District 2), who was a co-chair of the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations, released this joint statement after the grand jury report on behalf of himself and fellow co-chair Rep. Carol Alvarado (D – TX House District 145):

The grand jury report that came out this morning demonstrates why our committee needed to investigate Regent Hall and his behavior. Taxpayers expect their elected representatives to provide oversight of state agencies and executive appointees. Such oversight is especially important when appointees abuse their office. With this investigation now complete and with an outstanding new chancellor and strong new regents in place, we are optimistic that the UT System is ready to move forward and focus on the needs of its students and our state.

Regent Hall released the following statement after the grand jury’s decision not to indict him was made public:

The campaign by Speaker Straus, Representative Flynn and Senator Seliger to criminalize my service as a Regent constitutes abuse of office.  Their use of the levers of political power to cover up wrongdoing by legislators should now be investigated, and those exposed for their abuses should be driven from office.