Mar 31st - 12:22 pm
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.
Mar 30th - 1:38 pm
The state’s massive agency overseeing all health an human services needs “significant changes either in management structure or executive leadership” to lift itself out of a state of turmoil, according to a new study released Friday. The report, released by a “strike force” assembled by Governor Greg Abbott in January, said recent controversies over corruption are only symptoms of larger organizational problems within the agency.
The Health and Human Services Commission is a major component of Texas government, employing nearly one out of every five state workers and spending about $30 billion per year — more than a third of the state’s budget. Governor Abbott formed a team in January to look into problems at the agency after a $110 million state contract fell through over questionable contracting procedures in the agency with Austin-based software company 21CT. Subsequent investigations have led to several high-level resignations within the agency, including a gubernatorial appointee, Inpsector General Doug Wilson. Despite the report’s suggestion of “a change in leadership,” there’s still no word on the future of the HHSC’s executive director, Kyle Janek. Several lawmakers have called for him to step down, while Governor Abbott had previously said they would wait until after the report to make a decision.
That 21CT deal led to questions over the use of cooperative contracting, a type of contracting intended for smaller purchases that allows agencies to sidestep the normal bidding process. But Monday’s report defended that process, calling it a useful method often employed successfully by the state government. It points out “the 21CT controversy had as much to do with the actions of individuals as it did with the contracting process.” It suggested more restrictions and oversight on the Inspector General’s Office, as opposed to eliminating it altogether.
Monday’s report also urged caution about the idea of consolidation of HHSC agencies. Lawmakers have proposed turning the five agencies into one “mega agency” by 2016, but Monday’s report said many of the agency’s problems stem from the last consolidation — from 12 agencies to five — in 2003. The report said that deadline needs to at least be pushed back, and “may not be the right strategy for future success.” It urged lawmakers to consider the implications of that consolidation, saying the agencies are too broad to be successfully run by one entity. They say keeping some functions separate would lead to less risk of neglect and could help attract better and more specialized leadership.
Governor Abbott’s strike force included former Travis County state district judge and current UT Austin professor F. Scott McCown, as well as Texas A&M University System CFO Bill Hamilton, Texas Department of Agriculture CFO Heather Griffith Peterson, and former State Rep. Talmadge Heflin.
Governor Abbot released a statement responding to the quote, saying
“The report’s findings are deeply troubling. It is now more clear than ever that the Texas Health and Human Services Commission has been riddled with operational, managerial, structural and procedural problems that go far beyond any individual or contract. That is unacceptable. As Governor, I am committed to addressing these issues head-on. Upon assuming office, I took the immediate step of directing all state agencies – including HHSC – to implement key transparency and accountability reforms to their contracting and procurement processes. I will take the findings of the strike force’s report into account as I determine what additional actions must be taken to ensure Texans can have the trust they deserve to be able to place in their government.”
Mar 11th - 11:58 am
We’re getting a glimpse at how Senate leaders plan to tackle Governor Greg Abbott’s fifth emergency item: ethics reform. The Senate Finance Committee heard testimony Wednesday on Senate Bill 20, which aims to regulate the use of cooperative contracts.
Cooperative contracting is the controversial program that allows companies to bypass the usual bidding process for state contracts. The program, which was designed for smaller purchases, made headlines last year when Austin-based software company 21CT received a $20 million contract for Medicaid fraud detection software through that process. Subsequent accusations of corruption within the department led to several high-level resignations at HHSC, and a legislative push for more oversight in the state’s contracting process.
Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson (R – TX Senate District 12) filed Senate Bill 20, and dedicated Wednesday’s committee meeting to her legislation. It would require agency heads to approve the use of a cooperative contract for anything over $1 million and would prohibit any conflicts of interest with high-ranking department officials. It would also mandate an increasing number of competitive bids depending on the size of the contract, and would require agencies to develop an online database to post their contracts online.
“The recent reports of irregularities in contracts at our health and human services agencies have revealed what I perceive to be gaping holes in our laws on contracting,” Nelson said. “Those gaps need to be addressed across state government. Senate Bill 20 strengthens accountability, increases transparency and ensures the fair competitive bids in awarding of state contracts.”
The Finance Committee heard testimony from several departments, including the HHSC, but left the bill pending. The committee is expected to vote on the legislation next week.
Mar 4th - 1:17 pm
The Texas Senate has passed its first pieces of legislation of the session. Senate Bill 5 and Senate Joint Resolution 5 both passed by a 28-2 vote Wednesday.
The bills would direct the state’s car sales tax revenue into the state highway fund starting in 2017, up to $2.5 billion per year. Any money above that would be split, with half going to the state highway fund and the remainder going to the general revenue fund. The Senate approved an amendment proposed by Sen. Royce West (D – TX Senate District 23) to dedicate some of the money to education.
Supporters of the bill praised the stability for roads that the bill could provide. “This bill provides predictable funding for roads in the future,” Sen. Donna Campbell (R – TX Senate District 25) said.
Sen. Kirk Watson (D – TX Senate District 14) said he supports appropriating funding for roads, but added concern about dedicating funds. He said it could lead to a lack of flexibility in the future to pay for other needs. “We need money for roads,” he said, “but it’s not our only need. It’s just our most visible need. We need to find new funding. This is not new money, it’s existing funding being called a new name.”
Both bills will now go the House. If passed there, the bills will go to Governor’s Abbott’s desk for a signature.
Feb 24th - 12:44 pm
The Texas Senate has released what it’s calling some of the most substantial tax relief in state history. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick joined Senate leaders to announce Senate bills 1, 7 and 8 Tuesday, which would cut $4.6 billion in property and businesses taxes for the 2016-2017 budget cycle.
Senate Bill 1 would cut school property taxes by $2.5 billion, or $200 per average homeowner, by changing the mandatory homestead exemption. That rate has been a flat $15,000 for more than 15 years, but would now change to 25 percent of the statewide median home value. This bill would require voter approval because it would amend the state constitution.
The other two pieces of legislation would affect business taxes. Senate Bill 7 would permanently cut the business franchise tax by 15 percent. Senate Bill 8 would raise the franchise tax revenue threshold from $1 million to $4 million. Officials say that would exempt about 60,000 businesses from paying the franchise tax altogether.
This plan comes on the heels of Governor Abbott’s State of the State address earlier this month, when he said he would reject any budget without significant tax cuts. Senate leaders say their bill has bipartisan support. Meanwhile, House leaders say their chamber’s tax cut proposal would also top the $4 billion mark.
Feb 20th - 12:04 pm
Governor Greg Abbott has paved the way for the Legislature to start considering certain legislation. He officially issued proclamations for his five emergency items he announced in his State of the State address earlier this week, allowing lawmakers to take up the bills within the first 60 days of the session. The five items, which Governor Abbott called his top priorities for the session, include early education, higher education, border security, transportation and ethics reform.
In his address earlier this week, Abbott called for more than $4 billion per year to build Texas roads without raising taxes, tolls or debt. He says he wants to offer incentives to adopt high-quality pre-K programs, expand community colleges and raise the profile of the state’s research universities. And Governor Abbott says he wants to double state spending on border security.
With the legislature now able to consider bills relating to these topics, it will be up the the state’s two chambers to craft bills accomplishing those goals while heeding the governor’s call to start reducing the state’s debt.
To view the proclamation on early education, click here.
To view the proclamation on higher education, click here.
To view the proclamation on border security, click here.
To view the proclamation on transportation, click here.
To view the proclamation on ethics, click here.
Feb 16th - 3:15 pm
UT System Chancellor William McRaven has announced a new committee to reform the controversial admissions process at the state’s flagship public university. The six-member panel will review the recommendations in last week’s Kroll report into admissions at UT-Austin as well as recommendations from the UT System Board of Regents released last year.
The panel includes some high-powered names from the Texas higher education system, including former UT Austin presidents Larry Faulkner, Peter Flawn and William Cunningham, as well as former UT System chancellors Mark Yudof and Dan Burck and former UT System Executive Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs Pedro Reyes. McRaven says the goal for the committee is to advise the Board of Regents on best practices in university admissions that also provide transparency and oversight.
It comes after last week’s report which said UT Austin President Bill Powers did exert influence on a small number of applicants, including some with ties to donors and legislators. The report found Powers did not break any rules, but did suggest setting in place regulations to clarify vagueness in how much weight to put on a reference from the university president. Powers has stood behind his actions, saying universities across the country take actions like this to maintain relationships with people who benefit the school’s long-term interests. Chancellor McRaven says he wants to see this new report compared with internal investigations to find the best route forward for university admissions.
“My goal is to ensure full and open transparency to the public with respect to how admissions decisions are made at UT Austin. I realize that admissions practices are complicated and nuanced processes, but we must clearly define a policy that determines the degree of appropriate discretion at the institution level, while ensuring a fair and transparent process for applicants.”
UT System Chancellor William McRaven
McRaven says the committee is expected to release its recommendations on how to strengthen UT’s admission process within the next 60 days.
Feb 12th - 2:23 pm
A new independent report says University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers used his authority to get students admitted into the state’s flagship school despite objections of the admissions office, and misled lawyers looking into his conduct.
The investigation ordered by former Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa found Powers stepped in to have “must-have” applicants accepted, including some who had the recommendation of powerful people in the state. The report also found he and his chief of staff, Nancy Brazzil, failed to tell the whole truth when questioned about it by the system’s attorneys.
The review found no evidence any applicant was admitted as a “result of a quid pro quo or other inappropriate promise or exchange”, and did say the number of less-qualified applicants was relatively small. In all, the investigation found 73 applicants who were admitted with a combined SAT score of less than 1100 and a high school GPA of less than 2.9. But the report did find “a few cases each year of ‘truly unqualified kids,'” and added political connections may have influenced admission decisions in a small number of cases.
The report gives some weight to accusations made by UT System Regent Wallace Hall, who caused conflict with other regents over his investigation into whether lawmakers had too much influence over the admissions process. Lawmakers threatened to impeach Hall and ultimately censured him over what many called a “witch hunt” aimed at Powers. The censure is a mainly symbolic gesture.
A previous internal report found the acceptance rate among students who had a recommendation from a “friend of the university” or other “person of influence” was nearly double the rate of the average applicant. But this in-depth report says no rules were broken by Powers. It says there are many other influences that got less-qualified students admitted, and pointed out many of these processes have been in place since long before Powers became president. It said UT’s “holistic admission process is inherently subjective,” and added that if there is a desire to change the president’s authority in the admissions process, then a new rule or law would need to be enacted.
Kroll found no existing law or statute, Regents Rule or UT-System Policy concerning how much weight to give “external” recommendations (letters, phone calls, inquiries) in the admissions process. For many years, the practice of the Board of Regents, the Chancellor, and UT-System has been to forward letters and inquiries about applicants to the UT-Austin President’s Office. This practice implicitly suggests that the President of UT-Austin oversees the Admissions Office and is the final arbiter in the admissions process. If the President of UT-Austin, as a matter of law or policy, is to play a different role in admissions determinations, it would seem incumbent upon the legislature or the Board of Regents to enact a law or rule that so states. No such rule or law presently exists.
UT-Austin President Bill Powers released the following statement:
I believe UT Austin’s admissions practices are motivated by fairness, the long-term interests of the University, and serving the public good. In response to the report, I would like to make six points:
1. As Kroll reported, over a five-year period, my office intervened on behalf of “a relatively small” number of students. In particular, the report cited 73 applicants who normally would not have been admitted, or fewer than one in 1,000 admitted students.
2. In every case, I acted in what I believed was the best interest of the University.
3. Our admissions practices are fully consistent with all established laws, rules, and policies.
4. I inherited this process, which was well known by regents, former chancellors, the Board of Regents Office, and UT System officials, many of whom, as the report notes, asked me to intervene on their behalf. This process, both prior to and during my presidency, was in the best long-term interest of the University.
5. As the Kroll report points out, no spots at the University were saved and no one was displaced by this practice. The students in question were simply added to the incoming class.
6. It is my observation that some similar process exists at virtually every selective university in America, and it does so because it serves the best interests of the institutions.
I am proud of our staff for the full cooperation it gave to the inquiry, as cited in the report by the firm Kroll & Associates: “The commitment, dedication, and good faith of all officials and personnel with whom we interacted were readily apparent.” The Kroll report contains many recommendations worth considering.
I thank Chancellor McRaven for his thoughtful leadership.
Feb 10th - 1:59 pm
A day after public hearings were set for two bills governing the carrying of firearms, we now know the next step for a third controversial gun bill. The so-called “constitutional carry” bill, which would allow for the open carry of handguns without an additional permit as long as the gun owner is legally allowed to own the gun, was referred to the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee Tuesday.
The bill will see some opposition right away from Representative Poncho Nevarez (D – Texas House District 74), who is the co-vice chairman of that committee. Rep. Nevarez has been an outspoken critic of the constitutional carry bill after he received threats from gun rights advocates during a confrontation in his office that was video recorded. The incident made national headlines last month. Rep. Nevarez has since been assigned a security detail and House lawmakers passed new rules offering funding for any House office wanting to install panic buttons.
It’s all part of a larger debate on how to legalize the open carry of handguns, which has been banned in Texas for more than 125 years. Another bill, the so-called “open carry bill,” would allow gun owners to publicly carry handguns if they get a license and pass a background check. That will go to a public hearing in the Senate State Affairs Committee Thursday along with the “campus carry” bill, which would allow concealed handgun license owners to bring firearms onto public university campuses. That plan has been criticized by UT Chancellor William McRaven, who has raised questions about whether it would make campuses less safe.
Feb 9th - 2:40 pm
The Texas Senate is wasting no time pushing ahead with two controversial bills governing the carrying of firearms in public. The Senate Affairs Committee has scheduled public hearings for open carry and campus carry, setting up the next step in the legislative battle that has dominated the early headlines of the 84th Legislature.
Senate Bill 11 would allowed concealed handgun license holders to carry their guns on college campuses. Senate Bill 346 would remove the state’s 125-year-old ban on the open carry of handguns, but would require those gun owners to pass a background check and receive a license to do so.
Gun rights advocates criticized Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick last month for not following through on campaign promises when he said open carry bills weren’t a top priority and didn’t have the votes to pass. He then walked back on those comments and fast-tracked these two bills. Governor Greg Abbott disagreed with Patrick last week, saying he did believe the support was there for open carry. Then, UT Chancellor William McRaven voiced his opposition to campus carry, saying it would make college campuses more dangerous.
Many gun rights supporters are pushing for a different bill, constitutional carry, that wouldn’t require a license or background check to be eligible to openly carry handguns in public. But their efforts were hurt last week due to perceived threats from a member of Open Carry Tarrant County, who likened opposing constitutional carry to treason, which is punishable by death. Earlier this session, the Legislature installed panic buttons in lawmakers’ offices due to confrontations with gun rights advocates. So far, no action has been taken on constitutional carry.
Right now, it is legal to openly carry rifles, shotguns and other long arms without a license. But gun owners have to pass a background check and pay to get a concealed carry license hold a handgun in public.