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Daily Digest | May 20

Twelve days left until the end of the 84th Texas Legislature. Here’s what we have our eye on today:

There’s a lot of movement today on components of the state budget and tax cut plans. The budget conference committee is expected to start voting on components of the budget this afternoon, according to Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson (R – TX Senate District 12). She also told a group of reporters today that the full budget could be passed out of conference committee as soon as tomorrow. That came after a Senate Finance Committee meeting this morning where they passed a modified version of the House business tax plan. The proposal approved out of committee includes a 25 percent franchise tax cut, and raises the threshold for businesses to use the E-Z calculation rate to $20 million. It also makes that 25 percent tax cut permanent, removing a provision that would have allowed lawmakers to lower that rate again in the future. The competing tax cut plans have been the biggest sticking point of the session, but it now seems details of the plan are taking shape with less than two weeks left in the session. And of course the the tax cut plan is a critical part of the budget, the only thing the Legislature is required to pass to avoid an automatic special session.

We’re also getting a better idea of how the tax cut plan will affect Texans, and it may not be as much as lawmakers promised. The $3.8 billion deal is expected to wrap up this week, but it is about $1 billion less than what House Republicans first proposed. This means the average homeowner would roughly save about an extra $120 on their property taxes, and those savings may be short-lived. Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson acknowledged Wednesday that rising home appraisals could mitigate that tax relief.

Also tonight, we will take a closer look at the House’s omnibus border security funding bill as it starts to regain its momentum in the upper chamber. House Bill 11 was voted out of the Senate Subcommittee on Border Security this morning as lawmakers get closer to a possible deal.  It would increase the number of Texas Department of Public Safety officers on the border over the next two years. It would also establish an intelligence center in Hidalgo County to analyze border crime data, and create a volunteer corps of retired DPS officers to bolster the agency’s ranks.

Our guest tonight is highly-involved in both of these major pieces of legislation. Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R – TX House District 25) is the chair of the House Ways & Means Committee, which handles tax cuts. We’ll talk to him about that, plus he wrote the House border security bill, so we will talk about what that plan will mean for Texans as well. All that plus the Quorum Report’s Harvey Kronberg will join us with his observations. Tune in to “Capital Tonight”, at 7 and 11 p.m., only on Time Warner Cable News.

 

 

Daily Digest | May 18

Sine die is two weeks from today, and there’s still plenty of work to do at the Legislature. Here’s what we have our eye on today:

The House’s border security funding plan could be sent to the full Senate as soon as this afternoon. House Bill 11 was left pending in the Senate Subcommittee on Border Security this morning, but is expected to be brought back up later this afternoon. It would increase the number of Texas Department of Public Safety officers on the border over the next two years. It would also establish an intelligence center in Hidalgo County to analyze border crime data, and create a volunteer corps of retired DPS officers to bolster the agency’s ranks.

Gun control legislation, which dominated the early parts of the session, is coming back to the forefront this week. The House’s version of open carry, House Bill 910, is set to go before a Senate Committee today after going untouched for weeks. If it becomes law, concealed handgun license owners would be able to openly carry handguns. Law enforcement agencies have spoken out against an amendment that would prohibit police officers from stopping people who are openly carrying to ask them if they have a license, saying it would make it impossible to distinguish law-abiding citizens from criminals. As Chuck Lindell with the Austin American-Statesman reports, that provision is expected to be stripped from the bill in the Senate. Meanwhile, Senate Bill 11, which would allow concealed handgun owners to bring their guns onto campuses — but not carry them openly — is expected to get a second chamber vote this week. The full House could consider that bill as early as Wednesday, and if they approve the bill without any changes, it will go straight to the governor’s desk.

Governor Abbott is set to sign a major piece of legislation into law today: House Bill 40. That’s the legislation that would ban municipal governments from creating regulations on hydraulic fracturing. Critics of the bill say local governments and its citizens should have a say in whether drilling is done on their land. The bill’s authors say a statewide regulation would eliminate the confusion that could arise from a so-called patchwork of different regulations among local governments.

And the Senate sent a bill banning the sale of e-cigarettes to minors to Governor Abbott’s desk this morning. House changes to Senate Bill 97 were approved by the upper chamber today. Critics raised concerns about government overreach, but in the end it passed, on a 20-10 vote. A recent study found more young people are trying e-cigarettes than traditional cigarettes, and supporters of the bill say they should be treated like real cigarettes until more is known about their health effects.

For more on all of these stories, check out tonight’s episode of “Capital Tonight.” Our guest tonight will be Charley Wilkison, the executive director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, or CLEAT. He’ll talk about what’s been addressed by lawmakers this session, including CLEAT’s role in the compromise over a police body camera bill. Plus Harvey Kronberg from the Quorum Report will join us for his weekly analysis. Tune in tonight at 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. on Time Warner Cable News.

Daily Digest | May 5

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 Senate is expected to take action soon on Senate Bill 1735, which amends Hazlewood benefits for Texas veterans. The bill’s author, Sen. Brian Birdwell (R – TX House District 22) has promoted it as a way to rein in the skyrocketing costs of the tuition exemption. Currently, veterans with at least 180 days of active duty can get up to 150 credit hours of free tuition at a public university, and any of it they don’t use can be passed on to their children. That cost Texas universities about $170 million last year, and is expected to double in the next five years. The bill would tighten eligibility requirements — recipients would have to live in Texas for eight years — and would cut the amount of free tuition veterans get. That would be cut to 120 credit hours, the equivalent of a four-year degree, and would cap the number of credit hours that can be transferred to children at 60.

We’re also checking on the status of Legislative efforts to regulate ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft. A bill authored by State Rep. Chris Paddie (R – TX House District 9) has been approved by the House Transportation Committee, but is still waiting to be placed on the House calendar. Rollout of the growing ride-sharing companies has been slowed by local regulations in Texas. The bill’s backers say this creates a standard statewide protocol and does away with what they call a patchwork of confusing local regulations. The crux of the issue is the question of how to keep dangerous riders off the road. Lobbyists for the ride-sharing companies say they already do background checks and adding more checks isn’t necessary. The bill was amended to allow some city control of background checks, including the power for cities to require Uber and Lyft to subject drivers to fingerprint background checks. Some critics of the bill say it doesn’t do enough to hold drivers accountable, while others question whether allowing cities to require different background checks will create the same problem as before: a “mish mash” of different local regulations.

Republicans in the Senate have pushed through a bill that would reduce access to abortions in Texas. Under Senate Bill 575, private health insurance plans as well as plans through the Affordable Care Act’s health care marketplace could only provide coverage for abortions in cases of medical emergencies.  If the bill is passed, women would have to buy supplemental insurance to cover an elective abortion. Supporters say it would protect Texans who oppose abortion from subsidizing the procedure for others through their insurance payments. Democrats called the measure “extreme,” considering Texas already has some of the strictest abortion laws in the country.

For more on all of these stories, check out tonight’s episode of “Capital Tonight.” Our guest tonight is Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who will tell us about his initiative to change statewide policy to allow deep fryers in schools, reversing a decade-old policy. Plus, political analysts Harold Cook and Ted Delisi join us to give their takes on the week’s headlines. Tune in tonight at 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. on Time Warner Cable News.

Daily Digest | May 4

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:

Senators are hearing testimony on Senate Bill 2065 today. The bill, which was fast-tracked weeks after the filing deadline at the request of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, would excuse clergy members from officiating marriages that violate their beliefs. Democrats in the Senate delayed the bill to allow more of the public to testify.

The full House could take up their contract reform bill today. It’s an issue that was thrust into the spotlight after accusations state agencies were giving out multimillion dollar contracts without proper oversight due to loopholes in the law. It became a major campaign point for Gov. Greg Abbott, who called the controversy a key part of his fifth emergency item: ethics reform.

A rally is scheduled Monday afternoon at the Capitol, put together by activists opposed to House Bill 40, known as the “Denton Fracking Bill.” It would prohibit municipalities from banning the oil and gas exploration method. The companion legislation is Senate Bill 1165.

On “Capital Tonight” this evening, James Henson, director of UT’s Texas Politics Project, is scheduled to join us. We’ll talk to him about a planned U.S. military training exercise that drew a lot of suspicion from the public, and even a statement from the governor. Henson points to recent polling that may explain the reaction by both the public and politicians.

Also, the Quorum Report’s Harvey Kronberg will join us for his weekly commentary. That’s tonight at 7 and 11 on Time Warner Cable News.

Daily Digest | April 30

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:

There was a controversial moment in the Senate State Affairs Committee. A Democratic Senator delayed debate on a so-called “religious freedom” bill that was filed just two days ago. Senate Bill 2065 would allow clergy members to refuse presiding over marriage ceremonies they say infringes on their beliefs. It was filed (by request of Dan Patrick, according to Lauren McGaughy with the Houston Chronicle) just two days ago, weeks after the filing deadline, but had been fast-tracked to a public hearing through a loophole usually reserved for smaller, less controversial bills. A similar “religious freedom” bill was filed in the House earlier this session, but support for that bill fell apart after a similar bill in Indiana made national headlines earlier this year. Critics say the bill is too broad and allows for discrimination against the LGBT community.  Senator Jose Menendez (D – TX Senate District 26) tagged the bill, putting at least a 48-hour delay on the legislation. It is now scheduled for a public hearing on Monday.

The Senate Education Committee is expected to take a vote today on Governor Greg Abbott’s priority pre-kindergarten education bill. House Bill 4 passed out of the lower chamber about three weeks ago, but was thrust back into the headlines last week after Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s Grassroots Advisory Committee issued a scathing letter against the House pre-K plan. That letter is believed to be the main issue between the chamber leadership at their now-infamous boiling point moment during their Big 3 breakfast last week. Lieutenant Governor Patrick referred the bill to committee the next day. If it makes it out of committee, it will be one chamber vote away from being sent to the Governor’s desk.

In other news, the full House could vote today on a bill that would bring major reforms to the Texas Enterprise Fund. House Bill 26 would change the administration of the controversial TEF fund, create an Economic Incentive Oversight Board and abolish the Emerging Technology Fund. The funds, set up by then-Governor Rick Perry, have been criticized over lax oversight of the awarding of money. Opponents have also raised concerns about giving state money to private businesses.

Tonight on “Capital Tonight,” we take part in the ongoing Time Warner Cable News series “New Texas,” which takes a deeper look at the issues facing Texans as the state continues to evolve economically and culturally. For this week’s discussion on affordability, we’re joined by State Representative Carol Alvarado, chairman of the committee that deals with affordable housing legislation: the House Urban Affairs Committee. What’s being done this session to keep Texas affordable? That question, plus political analysts Harold Cook and Ted Delisi give their takes on the day’s headlines at the Capitol. Tune in to Time Warner Cable News at 7 and 11 p.m. for updates on all of these stories and more.

 

Daily Digest | April 29

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:

Education is our headline today. A day after a House committee approved one of Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s priority education bills, Governor Greg Abbott is speaking to supporters at the State Capitol about charter schools. Meanwhile, the governor’s first emergency item, pre-kindergarten education, takes a major step forward tomorrow. House Bill 4, which already passed out of the lower chamber, will go up for a public hearing in the Senate Education Committee, as it begins its journey through the upper chamber.

Lawmakers from both chambers and both sides of the aisle are pushing legislation to reign in payday lending. Sen. Rodney Ellis (D – TX Senate District 13), Sen. Royce West (D – TX Senate District 23) and Rep. Tom Craddick (R – TX House District 82) lent their support to bills that would limit the size and number of installments in loans offered by payday and title lenders. Some of those bills include House Bill 3047, House Bill 2808, Senate Bill 92 and Senate Bill 121.  Supporters say those types of companies are preying on the poor, while opponents raised concerns about restricting businesses.

In other news, the Senate moved forward with another one of Governor Abbott’s initiatives. It gave preliminary approval to Senate Bill 632 today, which would abolish the Texas Emerging Technology Fund and create a new university research initiative. In his State of the State Address, Governor Abbott called on the Legislature to devote funding to bringing the best university researchers to Texas as part of his higher education emergency item.

On tonight’s episode of “Capital Tonight,” we will be joined by the newest member of the upper chamber, Sen. Jose Menendez (D – TX Senate District 26). He’ll tell us about his transition from the House and his priorities for the rest of session. Plus, the Quorum Report’s Harvey Kronberg will join us to give his analysis. For that and more on all of these stories, tune in to Time Warner Cable News at 7 p.m. and 11 p.m.

Daily Digest | April 22, 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:

The dust is settling from the open carry bill receiving approval from a second chamber, and we’re finally getting an idea of what gun laws could look like in Texas by the end of the session. Tonight, we will look closer at the bill, as well as a controversial amendment to the legislation. And we’ll get reaction to the prospects for more gun legislation like campus carry.

A group of Texas veterans is rallying at the Capitol to support medical marijuana legislation. They’re urging lawmakers to hold a hearing on HB 3785, which would allow medical marijuana in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, severe pain and other medical conditions. It would also direct the Department of State Health Services to establish a tightly-regulated system of licensed marijuana cultivators, processors, and dispensaries.

And Governor Greg Abbott is continuing his series of speaking engagements around Austin. He will deliver remarks at Texas State Technical College’s 50th anniversary celebration at the Hilton Hotel downtown.

Tonight’s guests on “Capital Tonight” are Dr. Jon Olson & Dr. Cliff Frohlich, a petroluem engineer and seismologist working at UT-Austin who participated in a recent study released about hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in Texas. We’ll discuss their findings, and look ahead to what’s next for oil and natural gas exploration in Texas. Plus, the Quorum Report’s Harvey Kronberg will join us for his weekly analysis. That’s tonight at 7 and 11 p.m. on Time Warner Cable News.

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.