Friday, July 31, 2009

Increasing-Democracy: Texas Session Roundup

Here is a report from the Progressive State Network titled, "Increasing-Democracy,"
by Christian Smith-Socaris

Texas Session Roundup

The Texas legislature only meets once every two years, and this year there was enough drama, both real and fabricated, to last until they reconvene in 2011.  The biggest story by the end of the session was the minority parties ability to kill voter ID legislation in the House by "chubbing" or running out the clock by meticulously debating non-controversial legislation.  The need to prevent the disenfranchising ID bill has the unfortunate consequence of killing much good legislation.  And the primary reason there was good legislation to pass in the House was the big intrigue from the beginning of the session - the election of a compromise speaker with minority party support, replacing long-time speaker and conservative stalwart Tom Craddick.

Fabricated drama came primarily came from the governor, who spent much of the session ginning up anti-government fervor with attempts to reject recovery act funding, complete with pandering statements about seceding from the Union.  Like other GOP presidential hopefuls, he blustered about not wanting the money while lawmakers admitted that without the help the state's budget would have been a mess. The other item that the governor and conservatives used to distract the public was another push for voter ID supported by false, and often racist, claims of voter fraud.  The final big drama of the legislative session was the need to come back for two special sessions because the voter ID fight in the House had left some executive agencies without authorization to conduct business.  In the end essential legislation on the agencies and a few other matters were passed relatively quickly.

Budget and Stimulus:  The state is slated to receive over $16 billion over two years in recovery act funds, and passed a two-year budget of over $180 billion.  And while recovery act money has prevented draconian cuts in essential services such as education, and fueled rapid spending on transportation infrastructure, Governor Perry has used the stimulus as a political football, making a show of refusing hundreds of millions of dollars in unemployment insurance benefits for the people of his state.  Lawmakers made concerted efforts to override the governor's decision, but were unable to get a bill to force the issue out of both houses.

Using the recovery funds, the state pass a balanced budget, while being unwilling to tap the state's rainy-day fund of approximately $9 billion despite the economic crisis.  At the same time, the fiscal gains from the reviled stimulus was also used to expand the franchise tax exemption to 40,000 additional small businesses with revenue of up to $1 million.  Unfortunately, the state's business tax revenue is falling already and a structural deficit threatens to force severe budget cuts in the next biennium.

Privatization:  Private toll roads legislation died even as the governor personally pushed it to the very end of the special session.  While Gov. Perry has aggressively pushed privatization, in roads and elsewhere, for many years, serious scandal and misuse of public money has gone hand in hand with this expansion and undercut support in the legislature.

Healthcare: The big story on healthcare this session is what didn't happen - expansion of the Children's Health Insurance Plan (CHIP) to 80,000 more kids.  Texas remains the nation's leader in uninsured kids with a quarter of the state's children lacking health coverage and one in six of every uninsured child in the country lives in Texas.  The CHIP expansion got held up by the voter ID debate, but lawmakers were in strong support of the measure and tried mightily to get the governor to include the legislation in the special session to no avail.  HB 3485, another important healthcare bill was vetoed by the governor.  The bill would have allowed hospitals in counties of 50,000 or less to employ physicians, helping to reverse the shortage of doctors in rural areas of the state.  On a more positive note, a smoking ban for all workplaces gained some traction in the legislature, garnering commitments of support from a majority of senators as well as the
endorsement of the lieutenant governor.  And, importantly, none of the anti-choice bills put forth by conservatives were successful, including an ultrasound bill that was pushed strongly.

Primary and Secondary Education:  Teachers will see a one-time pay raise of $800 under the spending plan for recovery act dollars, and school districts are getting another $2 billion in funding.  This increase is not, however, sufficient to cover shortfalls built up after several years without an increase.  The legislature also passed a revision of the student accountability standards that retains the mandate that students pass standardized tests to advance to the next grade, but reduces the emphasis on the much-derided Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, as well as some other requirements such as the number of mandatory courses.

The Senate rejected the nomination of Don McLeroy to continue as State Board of Elections chairman due to his views on creationism and his lack of leadership.  This was a significant victory for science in a state where biology education is under attack.  Unfortunately, the governor is now likely to appoint someone as bad or worse to the post.  In other areas the new budget explicitly bars public funding for private school vouchers; school districts are now required to inform parents whether sex education classes provide any medically accurate information on responsible pregnancy and disease prevention.  Given that a large majority of parents want their children to receive comprehensive, medically accurate sex education, this bill should help achieve that goal in the long run.  Sadly, HB 130, a bill that would have made high quality, full day prekindergarten programs available to tens of thousands of eligible children, was vetoed despite strong
bipartisan support. 

Higher Education: Texas is currently a lagger in its number of tier one research universities.  Newly passed legislation creates funding pools and incentives for emerging research universities to advance to nationally recognized tier one schools.  The guaranteed admission that the top 10 percent of state high school graduates to state colleges is being scaled back with colleges now required to give only three quarters of students based automatic admission.  The law will primarily affect Univ. of Texas' main campus, which projects that 86 percent of its fall 2009 freshman class will be admitted automatically because they were in the top 10 percent of their high school class.

Energy and Environment:  There was an unprecedented flurry of activity and bipartisan support around renewable energy legislation in this session.  Over 50 bills dealing with such matters were introduced and a couple bills, one on solar subsidies and one enhancing the renewable portfolio standard were viable until the very end of the session.  Were it not for the voter ID debate it is likely one or both of these bills would have passed.  This level of support is primarily the result of the state's current dominance in wind power and the positive impact that is having on the economy.  Yet, in spite of the setbacks, several good pieces of energy legislation did pass:

HB1937 allows local taxing authorities to offer financing for renewable energy installations with payment to be made through an add-on to the owner's property taxes.
HB 1935, a workforce training bill, creates a green jobs training and development program that includes funding through a grant program.
HB 432 promotes low emissions and plug-in hybrid vehicles for fleets of major State Agencies.

Criminal Justice:  Generally Texas has been moving in a more progressive direction on criminal justice policies in the past few year, that trend continued at a measured pace this session.

Death Penalty: A statewide capital defense office is being created, here, in the capital of capital punishment.  This long-overdue reform will help resolve the egregious instances of incompetent counsel that have plagued capital defendants in the state for years.  Dedicated capital defenders are essential to ensuring basic fairness for those facing a possible death sentence and defendants in Texas will clearly benefit from this change.
Human Trafficking: The victims of human traffickers now are able to sue and seek punitive damages from the traffickers and the organizations involved.  Additionally, a task force was established to come up with policies for preventing and prosecuting human trafficking.
Guns: Both of the gun lobby's "right to carry" bills failed to pass.  The most notorious would require colleges to allow concealed handguns on campus; the other would have required that employers allow workers to store guns in their parked vehicles outside of work.

Voter ID:  The session started and ended with pitched battles over voter ID.  To begin the session the Senate voted to exempt voter ID from its rule that requires a 2/3rds vote to end debate.  Having unleashed the nuclear option, a photo ID bill quickly passed that chamber.  However, prospects were not clear in the closely divided House even though the bill had passed that chamber in recent sessions.  The committee chairman in charge spent much of the session trying to craft a compromise bill that Democrats would support.  In the end that failed and a bill requiring photo ID or two non-photo ID to vote was sent to the floor late in the session.  That is when the chubbing began, with minority party members debating every bill for the full ten minutes to wind down the clock.   In the end voter ID didn't come up for a vote.  But the insistence of the majority leadership of pressing on with the bill meant that perhaps
hundreds of worthy bills didn't get a vote.  Hopefully they will get the message that the right to vote is fundamental to our freedom and prosperity and committed advocates within and outside the legislature will continue to fight to preserve it.  On another note, there was a solid election integrity bill passed into law that institutes common sense procedures for handling and testing electronic voting machines.

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