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 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 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.

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.