Daily Digest | May 11

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:

We’re down to crunch time in the legislative session, with just three weeks until the final gavel drops. Monday marks a major deadline: Senate and House committees have to vote out their chamber’s bills by the end of the day. Committees will still be able to take up bills referred from the opposite chamber, but they have to get their versions passed by the end of Monday if they are to have any chance moving forward. Then, another deadline comes up Friday. That’s when bills have to have cleared the full chamber to survive into the last two weeks of session. That could set up a frantic week as lawmakers try to push through their priority legislation.

Meanwhile, the House approved Speaker Straus’s priority veteran’s health bill today. House Bill 19 was approved on a 131-5 vote. It charges the Department of Family and Protective Services as well as the Texas Veterans Commission with coordinating a mental health intervention program for military families. It also authorizes the creation of a new preventive mental health program for veterans considered “at a high risk of family violence or abuse or neglect.” The bill also establishes new training protocols for mental health volunteers who would participate in the program. The bill does not have a companion in the Senate, so now must be referred to a Senate committee.

And a proposed statewide ban on texting while driving has cleared another hurdle. House Bill 80 was approved by the Senate State Affairs committee today on a 5-1 vote. It would make texting while driving a class C misdemeanor. Violators would face fines ranging from $99 for first time offenders to $200 for repeat violations. The bill was amended to create an exemption for drivers who have to use handheld devices while driving for their jobs. Similar bills in previous sessions have died in the Senate, but supporters hope the third time is the charm for the bill to clear the upper chamber. If it’s approved this time, it will go back to the full House for a vote on the changes made in the Senate.

For more on all of these stories, check out tonight’s episode of “Capital Tonight.” Our guest tonight is Carlos Rubinstein, the chairman of the Texas Water Development Board. We’ll check in with him about a plan from last session, which was later approved by voters, to set aside money for water projects. We’ll ask him what types of projects are getting money, and when will they make a difference. Plus, the Quorum Report’s Harvey Kronberg will join us for his weekly commentary. Tune in tonight at 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. on Time Warner Cable News.

Capital Tonight: Rep. Pickett maps out transportation funding options

A familiar political controversy has resurfaced in the race for Texas governor.

Democratic candidate Wendy Davis is accusing her Republican opponent, Greg Abbott, of failing to do his job overseeing the state’s cancer-fighting agency. But as Davis denounced her opponent’s actions at an East Austin event Tuesday morning, Abbott supporters were there with a rebuttal.

In Tuesday’s Capital Tonight, we took a closer look at how Attorney General Abbott is connected to the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas and how his campaign team is responding.


The search for a long-term funding solution for Texas transportation continues. We checked in on a House committee looking at all the options, and we sat down with the committee’s chairman, Rep. Joe Pickett.


Sen. Ken Paxton’s campaign for Texas attorney general suffered another blow after a police association withdrew its endorsement. Our political strategists, Harold Cook and Ted Delisi, weighed in on that development and more.

TxDOT director Phil Wilson moves to LCRA

After nearly two years as head of the Texas Department of Transportation, Phil Wilson is moving to another position.

The Lower Colorado River Authority’s board of directors voted today to hire Wilson as their new general manager. Wilson will take over for Rebecca Motal, who retired in December after 27 years.

In a statement, LCRA board chairman Tim Timmerman praised Wilson’s management experience and cited some of the agency’s upcoming challenges.

“Our region faces serious challenges as this drought continues. LCRA plays an important role in developing new water supplies as we manage current supplies for more than a million people. LCRA also provides a reliable source of electricity, which is vital to our growing region. We believe Phil Wilson’s knowledge and leadership skills are exactly what we need to work through these challenges.”

Wilson will take over as LCRA’s executive director on Feb. 1.


Capital Tonight: Lawmakers hit the road after passing transportation funding

The final piece of a plan to increase funding for the state’s roads and bridges passed shortly after 9:30 Monday night, by a vote of 124-2. Minutes later, House lawmakers adjourned Sine Die, pending administrative duties.

The complete package will divert half of the money earmarked for the state’s Rainy Day Fund toward the State Highway Fund instead. Estimated at nearly a billion dollars per year, the money would go toward construction and maintenance for non-tolled roads, and would fill almost a quarter of the $4 billion in funding Texas Department of Transportation officials say they need.

The two-part plan includes a funding mechanism, known as Senate Joint Resolution 1, which will go before voters as a ballot measure in 2014. The second part of the funding plan, known as House Bill 1, details the way lawmakers decide how much money gets left in the Rainy Day Fund. It also directs TxDOT to find cost-cutting measures without reducing funding for transportation projects.

Lawmakers failed to get a similar plan passed during the previous special session after falling short of the 100 votes needed.

In our special, 11 p.m. broadcast, we checked in with Rep. Joe Pickett shortly before the final vote, and talked to the Quorum Report‘s Harvey Kronberg about the latest on funding for the Public Integrity Unit.


Questions about voting law in Texas aren’t going away anytime soon, despite a recent Supreme Court ruling and a vote on redistricting maps by Texas lawmakers. To find out where the issue is headed from here, we spoke to Michael Li of the Texas Redistricting & Election Law blog.


Plus, State Sen. Wendy Davis was back in Washington Monday, this time headlining a luncheon at the National Press Club. Speaking in front of journalists and Democratic supporters, the woman who made headlines with a nearly 11-hour filibuster didn’t shy away from her rising profile. Click the YNN logo below to see the full episode.

Business leaders make public push for transportation funding

Business leaders are urging Texas lawmakers to pass measures to pump some money into roads.

As legislators meet today to try to approve a funding plan, those in favor of the added money came together Monday morning to plead passage. Groups calling for increased transportation funding include the Texas Association of Business, Texas Association of Manufacturers, Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, Transportation Advocates of Texas and San Antonio Mobility Coalition. They say a dedicated revenue source for transportation will keep Texas the economic envy of the nation.

“This is an issue that affects every citizen who lives in this great state and those thousands new citizens that we get here every single day,” Richard Perez, president and CEO of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, said. “It’s about mobility and it’s about investing in who we are and what we need to continue to be at the top of the economic development ladder.”

Lawmakers are looking to add about one billion dollars a year for transportation projects without new taxes or fees.

According to the Texas Department of Transportation, the proposed added money would only be about a quarter of what’s needed just to maintain roads. But TxDOT officials say it’s a good start.

One funding plan has passed the Senate. The House is taking up a slightly different version Monday afternoon.

If passed, voters would then have to ultimately approve the proposal in November 2014.

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.



Straus calls third special session unnecessary

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus doesn’t appear to be on board with Gov. Rick Perry’s plans to call another special session. In a statement released following today’s vote, Straus said lawmakers made it clear the bill being considered doesn’t do enough to solve the state’s transportation woes. “Texas needs a much more comprehensive approach to funding our growing state’s growing transportation needs, and another 30-day special session will not change that,”  he said.

Here is Rep. Straus’ statement in its entirety.

“I would like to thank the Members who worked so diligently in an effort to address some of our transportation needs during these two special sessions. As today’s vote shows, Members have become increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of diverting and indefinitely dedicating funds away from the Rainy Day Fund to roads.  These funds were never intended to be a stable, long-term way to address our transportation needs.

“Diverting a capped amount of money from the Rainy Day fund to repair roads is much like using a Band-Aid to cover a pothole; in the end, you still have a pothole and you’ve spent a lot of money without solving the fundamental problem.  Legislators know that Texas needs a much more comprehensive approach to funding our growing state’s growing transportation needs, and another 30-day special session will not change that. Until members are free to consider real options – beyond simply shuffling taxes from one purpose to another – we will not find a responsible solution to this issue.

“One of the hallmarks of this year’s regular legislative session was the way legislators came together to develop long-term, responsible policies to meet Texas’ growing needs. Developing a similar long-term, responsible plan to truly address Texas’ growing transportation needs is going to take much more time and an approach that focuses on the best solution for the people of Texas.”

Perry calls House transportation vote ‘disappointing’

Gov. Rick Perry had promised to call lawmakers back for a third special session if they failed to pass transportation funding. It appears now, he might follow through with that threat.

The House Monday voted down the proposed constitutional amendment.  It is not clear if the bill’s supporters will be able to get the 16 votes necessary to reconsider the proposed constitutional amendment.

On the other side of the Capitol, the Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst seems to have the support and is waiting for members to return to town before taking it up. Dewhurst announced Monday that the Senate would take up the measure Tuesday.

Gov. Perry issued this statement:

“It is disappointing that some members of the House today needlessly delayed our state’s ability to deal with the added strain our increasing population and surging economy are placing on our roads and highways. Should the Legislature adjourn without addressing our growing transportation needs, they’ll be abdicating one of the most essential roles of state government, potentially sapping our economic momentum.

This was an opportunity to utilize hundreds of millions of dollars in existing revenue to move forward on numerous projects across our state and begin dealing with the effects of our economic growth, and just as importantly, provide much-needed relief to working Texans everywhere who spend hours in traffic every day. Legislators have been in Austin for nearly seven months now, and to go home without dealing with one of the most pressing issues facing all Texans is simply unacceptable. I join Texans across the state who appreciate the 84 members of the House who voted today to keep Texas moving.”