Tuesday, April 26, 2016
Monday, April 25, 2016
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2016/04/06/tribcast-cruz-wisconsin-abortion-foster-children/.
Analysis: Texas Legislative Review Process Needs a Review
- by Ross Ramsey, The Texas Tribune
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When the Texas Department of Transportation was up for its periodic legislative review in 2009, the must-pass bill became a magnet for every legislative idea that had not already passed on its own.
“There were, like, 200 or 250 amendments,” recalled House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, in an interview last week. “I couldn’t even see the parliamentarian for the stacks of amendments everywhere. It was just ridiculous.”
He has a pretty good memory: An aide looked it up and found there were 222 amendments. The most important thing to remember, however, was that after months of work on one of the state’s biggest and most important agencies, that so-called Sunset legislation failed.
“It makes a mockery of the whole Sunset process, and it makes me question whether or not it still serves a useful purpose,” Straus said. “So, let’s give it a try, to try to refocus and instill some discipline, and see how we do.”
Many of the reviews done by the state’s Sunset Advisory Commission go more or less as intended — about 75 percent of their recommendations have made it into law, by Sunset’s count. The commission periodically recommends changes in how agencies operate, revisions to their missions and even whether they should continue to exist.
Two dozen agencies are on the list for the next legislative session, and the appointed Sunset Commission and the agency that supports it are already at work. Straus named three members — including Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, who will serve as chairman — to the commission last week.
In spite of Sunset’s successes, the fate of that 2009 Department of Transportation bill was entirely unsurprising. It’s a big agency with a broad mission, making it vulnerable to hijackers in the lobby.
State agencies must win legislative permission every 12 years to remain open.
Failures like the TxDOT bill that choked to death on amendments in 2009 are common enough, however, that lawmakers regularly end their sessions with “safety net” bills. Those are designed to keep the otherwise-dead agencies alive for another day.
Straus, in his quiet way, has had enough of that. He — and he’s not the first to try this — would like to restrict the lobby runs on Sunset bills.
Generally speaking, the hijackers have one of two agendas. The first are regulated industries and other interests that want to revise an agency’s operations or mission in a way that benefits them. An example would be oil and gas industry lobbyists who have battled against moving regulatory hearings from the Texas Railroad Commission, where they have a lot of clout, to the State Office of Administrative Hearings, where they don’t.
“From my observation, when a Railroad Commission Sunset bill doesn’t pass, it’s certainly a lobby victory,” Straus said. “I don’t think it’s a member problem — I think it’s a lobby thing. A lot of people get hired in the lobby to work these things, especially when it involves an agency like the Railroad Commission, or TDI [the Texas Department of Insurance] or TxDOT or some of those others.”
That said, none of those lobby provisions can get added to legislation without the help of the legislators. They’re the only voters in the process.
The second group is trying to save zombie legislation that can’t survive on its own by attaching it to must-pass Sunset bills.
“They try to attach other bills that they can’t pass otherwise,” Straus said. “The end result is that the Sunset bills, they fall apart, they crumble.”
Every bill has a subject line — a caption — and parliamentary rules require that everything added to a bill fit within the subject described in the caption. That 2009 transportation bill, for instance, had this caption: “Relating to the continuation and functions of the Texas Department of Transportation, including the transfer of certain functions to the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles.”
“Continuation” is the live-or-die part. “Functions” and the name of the agency are the magnetic parts that made a surprising number of those 222 amendments appropriate, or “germane” for consideration.
It’s not just transportation. The Railroad Commission, up again this year, is a perennial. So is the Texas Department of Insurance, although legislators finally got that one completed in 2011.
Here’s a doozy: The last time the state Legislature passed a Texas Education Agency sunset bill was more than 25 years ago. The sponsor was then-Rep. Bill Hammond, R-Dallas, who now heads a business trade group. The Sunset Commission staffer who worked on it was a young Ken Levine, who is now the agency’s executive director.
Education isn’t on Levine’s list this year, but the Department of Transportation is back. So are the Railroad Commission, a bunch of agencies that regulate medical professions and the State Bar, which regulates lawyers.
About a year from now, when the legislative session is in its last six weeks, Levine, Straus and the zombies and the regulated industries will decide whether and how things have changed — if they have changed at all.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2016/04/25/analysis-texas-legislative-review-process-needs-re/.
The Department of Education wants to learn more about charter school students http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/charter-schools-diversity_us_5717ae2be4b0c9244a7a7ee7 via @HuffPostPol
Saturday, April 23, 2016
Wednesday, April 20, 2016
Tuesday, April 19, 2016
Monday, April 18, 2016
Saturday, April 16, 2016
Tuesday, April 12, 2016
Monday, April 11, 2016
Thursday, April 7, 2016
The Brief: 14,000-Plus STAAR Exams Affected by Computer Glitch
The Big Conversation
The state’s education commissioner revealed on Wednesday the scope of a computer glitch that caused some students taking state standardized exams to lose their answers.
Commissioner Mike Morath told the State Board of Education that more than 14,000 tests were affected by the glitch. A Texas Education Agency spokeswoman told the Tribune’s Kiah Collier that nearly 8,800 of the affected exams were a version of the standardized test given to special-education students.
Districts across the state reported that responses given online were disappearing after students logged out, occurring sometimes after 30 minutes of inactivity or a lost internet connection.
Collier noted the problems began cropping up on the first day of testing for the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, exam, “helping fuel an ongoing backlash against a standardized testing regime that many parents and educators believe is already too stressful.”
Collier added, “If the problem isn't solved by May, Morath said the state would reconsider its contract with Educational Testing Services, the New Jersey-based company it picked last year to develop and administer the state-required exams. The decision to hire ETS made waves as London-based Pearson had held the contract since Texas began requiring state student assessments in the 1980s.”
Trib Must Reads
Sanctuary City Fears Could Thwart Municipal ID Program, by Julián Aguilar — An El Paso-based immigrant rights group could see its hopes for a municipal ID card dashed after leaders there determined issuing the card could prompt immigration hardliners to label the town a sanctuary city.
After Wisconsin Rout, Cruz Confronts the Northeast, by Patrick Svitek — After a decisive win over Donald Trump in Wisconsin, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz is now staring down a string of GOP presidential primaries in northeastern states that tend to be more moderate and friendlier to his two Republican rivals.
Bernie Tiede Painted As Victim, Calculating Killer, by Johnathan Silver — Attorneys painted two vastly different pictures of the former Carthage mortician Wednesday during opening statements in his second sentencing trial for Marjorie Nugent's 1996 murder.
Hospital Counters Couple's Claim Over Abortion Limits, by Alexa Ura — An Austin hospital is contradicting a couple's account that the state’s ban on abortion after 20 weeks kept them from ending an ill-fated pregnancy.
John Cornyn Still Not Endorsing Ted Cruz, by Abby Livingston — U.S. Sen. John Cornyn said Wednesday that he will continue to remain neutral in the GOP nomination fight and will not endorse his fellow Texan, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, for president.
Rick Perry's Criminal Case Officially Dismissed, by Jim Malewitz — The criminal case against former Gov. Rick Perry was officially dismissed on Wednesday, weeks after the Texas' highest criminal court ordered that it be dropped.
The Day Ahead
• The House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the state budget for health and human services will hear public testimony at 9 a.m. in the Capitol extension. Speakers will discuss how the state can improve the quality of health care provided by the Texas Medicaid program.
• The House Culture, Recreation & Tourism Committee meets at 11 a.m. in Alamo Hall in San Antonio. The committee will find ways to promote and improve tourism, youth education and economic development through new practices. Lawmakers will hear invited and public testimony.
• The Texas Organic Agricultural Industry Advisory Board meets at 11 a.m. in the Stephen F. Austin Building in Austin for its first board meeting.
• U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, will discuss his tax reform plan and preview his visit to the Doris Miller Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center when he visits the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce at 12:30 p.m.
Worried about 16-year-olds on the road? Fewer lining up for licenses, The Dallas Morning News
FBI raids offices of investment firm tied to Dallas Police and Fire Pension System, The Dallas Morning News
Donna man executed after Supreme Court denies clemency, McAllen Monitor
San Antonio ranks high among U.S. cities for use of solar power, San Antonio Express-News
At age 30, ‘Don’t Mess With Texas’ has cleaned up litter and bumped up state revenue, The Dallas Morning News
Conaway ‘backing our nominee whoever it is — Period.’, Odessa American
Critics say Uber, Lyft discounts in Austin a bid for May 7 votes, Austin American-Statesman
Quote to Note
“Did I just endorse, Wolf?”
— Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, who said that he won’t support Donald Trump and it’s mathematically impossible for John Kasich to win the GOP nomination, asking CNN’s Wolf Blitzer if he had just endorsed Ted Cruz.
Today in TribTalk
How overtime pay changes could affect Texas employers, by Michael V. Abcarian — The Department of Labor’s impending proposal to dramatically change the cost of overtime pay exemptions under the Fair Labor Standards Act may force Texas employers to increase pay to an estimated 400,000 employees if the proposal is finalized without changes. How can employers comply with these changes?
Trib Events for the Calendar
• A Conversation with Sen. Carlos Uresti and Rep. Poncho Nevárez on April 13 at Sul Ross State University in Alpine
• A Conversation with Dawn Buckingham on April 21 at the Austin Club
• A Conversation on San Antonio & the Legislature: The Issues in the Interim on April 26 at the University of Texas at San Antonio
• A Symposium on the Texas Economy on April 29 at the University of Houston
• The Texas Tribune's third Texas-centric Trivia Night on May 1 at The Highball in Austin
• A Conversation on Mental Health Matters on May 10 at KLRU Studio 6A in Austin
Roundup: Trump, Perry's Lost Ballot and The Price of Admission
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2016/04/01/roundup-trump-perrys-ballot-price-of-admission/.
El Paso Doesn't Want ID as "Sanctuary City"
- by Julián Aguilar, The Texas Tribune
An El Paso-based immigrant rights group could see its hopes for a municipal ID card dashed after leaders there determined that issuing the card might prompt immigration hardliners to label the town a "sanctuary city."
In 2014, the El Paso-based Border Network for Human Rights launched a petition drive asking the city council to consider creating a standardized ID card available to city residents. The card would not reflect a person's legal status in the country but could be used as proof of residency by undocumented immigrants waiting to apply for President Obama’s executive action on immigration, which is stalled in the courts.
The ID could also be used to open bank accounts, protect day laborers and other workers paid day-to-day from predatory check-cashing agencies that charge high fees and be used to access city services like libraries and emergency care, proponents argue.
Oakland and San Francisco issue similar cards, and the petition to launch them in El Paso garnered more than 10,000 signatures.
But an analysis of the program released by the city reflected leaders' concerns over what, if any, reprisals could come from state and federal leaders who oppose sanctuary cities, the common term for municipal governments that don’t enforce federal immigration laws.
“In the past year, there has been legislation filed at both the state and federal level regarding ‘sanctuary cities.’ These bills seek to prohibit local government entities from having policies, ordinances, and rules that prohibit or interfere with the enforcement of immigration laws,” the city’s report states.
The city council acknowledges that so far, a municipal ID isn’t considered a criterion that defines a sanctuary city. But that could change next year, the city officials said.
“It is likely, however, that during the interim and upcoming state legislative session, the impact of municipal ID on immigration policies will be discussed, particularly in the Texas Senate. In addition, any current “sanctuary city” legislation could be amended or proposed legislation could be re-drafted to include Municipal ID as a prohibited policy, ordinance or rule,” the report says.
The idea's backers accused the city of bowing to political pressure.
“The language and reasoning in their report not only contains ambiguous, hypothetical, and artificial arguments to undermine the community demand, but in so doing is guided by reaction to anti-immigrant elements as the City of El Paso panders to fears of ‘sanctuary cities’” Gabriela Castaneda, a BNHR spokeswoman and director, said in a statement. “The report prepared by city staff needlessly takes a political stand against immigrants and marginalizes the positive impacts on civic integration, safety, and community.”
A city spokesperson declined to comment until a final decision has been made.
Castaneda said the group will continue pushing for the program when the council meets next month. But according to the city’s study, the card would have limited benefits if the program is implemented.
In a letter to Verónica Soto, the city’s director of Community and Human Development, Texas Department of Public Safety General Counsel D. Phillip Adkins said DPS wouldn’t consider a municipal ID card a primary document needed to obtain a state-issued driver’s license. It could be considered a secondary document, which can be used in conjunction with another form of identification. But that depends on the final product, Adkins said.
But the proposed city ID would work to obtain some services that other documents, including the Mexican consular ID, are also used for, according to the city analysis. Those include some utility services and school registration in the Socorro Independent School District.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2016/04/07/sanctuary-city-fears-could-thwart-municipal-id-pro/.
Vista Ridge Pipeline Opponents Win Small Victory
- by Kiah Collier, The Texas Tribune
Opponents of the city of San Antonio’s Vista Ridge water supply project scored a minor win this week when Texas Water Development Board staff announced the 142-mile pipeline was ineligible to seek an $885 million low-interest construction loan.
Abengoa Vista Ridge, the Spanish subsidiary company that San Antonio’s water utility contracted with in 2014 to build the pipeline, had agreed to finance construction and assume all financial risk if the project fell through. San Antonio Water System officials repeatedly cited that pledge in advocating for a project city leaders say is key to securing the city’s long-term water supply. As soon as 2020, the pipeline could send up to 16.3 billion gallons of water per year to San Antonio from Burleson County in Central Texas.
But earlier this year, as the deteriorating financial position of Abengoa Vista Ridge’s parent company threatened to derail the project, the subsidiary sought a low-interest loan from the water development board. The company's initial application, submitted by a nonprofit water supply corporation it formed to acquire easements and rights of way for the pipeline, was co-signed by San Antonio Water System staff.
The utility’s chief, Robert Puente, told the Tribune last month that the loan application was submitted in case Abengoa Vista Ridge ever wanted to refinance and get a better rate. It has since struck a deal for its primary construction contractor, Garney Construction, to buy 80 percent of the project and take the lead on the design, construction and financing.
But the move angered Vista Ridge opponents, including several environmental groups, who argued in a letter to the water development board last week that it would put San Antonio water ratepayers on the hook for paying back the loan if the pipeline financier happened to default. They also argued that it would set a “dangerous precedent” of private entities forming water supply corporations simply so they could get low-interest state loans.
In addition to overseeing statewide water planning, the state agency also awards low-interest loans to utilities and other subdivisions of the state to finance water supply projects — a responsibility that has expanded greatly since 2013 when voters overwhelmingly approved a proposition creating a revolving state water fund known as the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT).
On Wednesday, though, water development staff released a memo detailing projects it thinks should be able to submit final loan applications, and Vista Ridge was not among them “due to lack of information sufficient to establish eligibility."
The agency’s executive administrator attempted to secure the needed information “but has not received responses,” the memo said.
Lauren Ice, an attorney for the environmental group Save Our Springs Alliance, praised the agency staff's decision.
“While this alone may not mean the failure of Vista Ridge, the project has obviously faced some serious financial difficulties already, this just being the latest," she said. "With the new partner set to take control, it is still unknown how they plan to build the expensive infrastructure necessary to move massive amounts of groundwater across 142 miles.”
Water development staff did give its blessing to a $127 million loan to the San Antonio Water System to finance upgrades to integrate Vista Ridge water into the municipal water system.
Garney Construction said last month it still planned to pursue the water development board loan, even though it planned to finance construction through “a consortium of banks being led by Sumitomo (SMBC)" because "access to those funds could benefit SAWS ratepayers."
Company President and CEO Mike Heitmann said in a statement Wednesday that the company “will continue to explore all options for long-term financing that may be beneficial to SAWS and its ratepayers.”
“The Texas Water Development Board and SWIFT funding are not part of the current approach for construction of the Vista Ridge project,” the statement said.
Puente said Abengoa Vista Ridge didn't respond to the water development board's request for information because it was too busy trying to find someone to take over the project but that "it’s probably best that it happened this way" as Garney will have to appoint new members to the water supply corporation's governing board if it takes over the project.
If that happens, Puente said he will encourage the company to re-apply for the loan in case it ever wants to refinance and get a lower rate.
While that loan "would be backed up by the ratepayer, the taxpayer," he said he believes "the ratepayer would be fully protected" because the water development board has such stringent requirements.
"The Texas Water Development Board has a long history of rejecting applications, and the ones that they do accept are very secure, very well documented," he said, criticizing opponents.
"Whatever they can think of, they will throw at this project because they fundamentally do not want growth in this community," he said.
In a briefing Thursday, Puente told the San Antonio City Council that the utility still was carrying out "due diligence" to ensure Garney is good to finance the project, again describing the company's proposed takeover as "a very positive step." The utility's board of trustees is expected to vote on the deal in the coming weeks.
If that pans out, Puente told the Tribune that utility staff will recommend that the board approve the change.
However, he also told council that the board has the option of rejecting the deal and directing the utility to take over the project, which he said "would cost much less."
While that would involve assuming the risk if the water doesn't come through for whatever reason, he said, "This risk is a manageable risk, so the question would be: How much is that worth?"
Several residents urged the council on Thursday to intervene and pull the plug on the project, which they described as unnecessary. Opponents believe the city doesn't really need the water and that the groundwater conservation district in Burleson County could end up halting pumping, anyway, if it adversely impacts the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer. A hydrologist opponents hired to study the issue has concluded that will happen.
Disclosure: The San Antonio Water System is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2016/04/07/loan-fate-mini-victory-vista-ridge-opponents/.
Sunday, April 3, 2016
PAC Mobilizes to Defend Vaccine Exemptions in Texas
- by Morgan Smith, The Texas Tribune
On a Friday night little over a year ago, a Texas mother of three was attending a school dance when she got a text message that stopped her cold.
A state lawmaker from Dallas had filed legislation taking aim at a provision in state law that allows parents to opt their children out of school immunization requirements.
“I looked at that text and I just kind of was like, ‘Oh no he didn’t,’” said Jackie Schlegel-Polvado, who lives near Bastrop. “This is Texas. We believe in parental rights in Texas. Like, that is just a fundamental belief that most Texans have that parents make decisions for their children, not the state.”
It was an issue that directly affected Schlegel-Polvado and her family. Since 2007, she has been one of a small but growing number of parents in Texas who obtain “conscientious exemptions” from state vaccine requirements.
What was several worried parents exchanging text messages over the next few days turned into a Facebook group that within two weeks had more than 1,300 members, and then, ultimately, a political action committee.
Texans For Vaccine Choice’s mission, according to Schlegel-Polvado, is to guard parents’ rights to opt out of vaccine requirements — whether that means targeting legislators who seek to close non-medical exemptions or pushing for policies that otherwise protect parents who choose not to vaccinate, like preventing physicians from excluding them from their practices.
In this year's primary elections, that meant going after state Rep. Jason Villalba, the Dallas Republican who filed the bill.
“The animus that was leveled against me for that was very surprising to me,” said Villalba, who ultimately won his race. “These people, they literally said it to my face — they hate me. That was troubling. Because I get it, they care about their children — but I care about my children too, and the children of the community.”
When he filed the bill last session, Villalba, a father of three, said he expected it to be non-controversial. Like other lawmakers around the country who have pushed to re-examine vaccine laws — including in California and Vermont, which last year successfully limited provisions allowing non-medical exemptions — he was motivated by recent outbreaks of diseases like measles and whooping cough that medical officials attributed to growing numbers of parents choosing not to vaccinate their children.
About 38,000 — or 0.75 percent of Texas students — received non-medical exemptions from at least one vaccine during the 2013-2014 school year. While that figure — which includes students at both public and accredited private schools — is still below the national average of 1.8 percent, it has soared from just under 3,000 — or 0.09 percent — in 2004.
State law requires that children at all public and private schools have 10 different immunizations, including for tetanus, measles and pertussis, the bacterial disease known as whooping cough. Generally, children must receive those vaccines by the time they are in kindergarten, though they receive others, like for hepatitis B, in later grades.
If parents wish to opt out of school immunization requirements, they must file a what's known as a "conscientious exemption" form with their child's school at the start of the year. All but two states — West Virginia and Mississippi — grant exemptions from school immunization requirements on religious grounds. Texas is among 18 that also waive requirements because of personal beliefs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Under Villalba's initial measure, Texas would have only allowed students to receive exemptions for medical reasons, such as an allergic reaction or in instances where a weakened immune system could cause health complications.
Pediatricians — many of whom have watched with dismay as the number of parents choosing not to vaccinate their children has climbed — widely support the elimination of non-medical exemptions to immunization requirements.
"In my opinion, there are no good, valid reasons for deferring vaccinations or not vaccinating based on religion or philosophical objection," said Dr. Jason Terk, a pediatrician at Cook Children's Hospital in Keller. "It is my firm conclusion that vaccines and the benefit they provide to individuals and the rest of the public is well founded."
Terk said low immunization rates brought an undeniable risk of otherwise preventable deadly disease outbreaks.
"That is not a theoretical argument; that is something that we’ve seen occur in the parts of U.S. where the frequency of non-vaccination is significantly higher, and those those locales are precisely the places where we’ve seen outbreaks," he said.
But for parents like Schlegel-Polvado, who have children they believe have been harmed by vaccines, any proposal to end exemptions is a battle call.
“You come after parental rights, we are going to fight back,” said Schlegel-Polvado, who discontinued vaccinating her younger two children after concluding that a childhood DTaP immunization led to brain damage in her now-15-year-old daughter, Ashlyn.
During the 2015 legislative session, Villalba said he quickly became acquainted with the passion of the anti-vaccine movement’s supporters, many of whom believe the undue influence of pharmaceutical companies has led to an overabundance of immunization requirements that come at the expense of children’s health.
“This is a group that is very dedicated, very organized; this issue is very important to them,” he said.
Texas has long been home to a small but robust community of anti-vaccine activists, including Andrew Wakefield, the author of a now-retracted 1998 study linking autism to the routine measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine that helped launch the movement.
Wakefield, who lost his medical license in 2010 and lives in Austin, most recently directed the documentary "Vaxxed," which was pulled from the Tribeca Film Festival in March following outcry from the medical community.
“In the political cycle, this is very much a one-issue determinant for who people sometimes choose to vote for. This something that is that strong for families. It is the health and well-being of their children,” said Dawn Richardson, who founded the advocacy group Parents Requesting Open Vaccine Education in 1997 and has long been a prominent voice opposing vaccine requirements in the state.
Richardson said Texans For Vaccine Choice, which is unaffiliated with her group, represented a new generation of parents who were waking up to the ill effects of vaccines.
“This has happened a lot, where bills have gotten introduced that are attempting to restrict rights and there is a lot of backlash. It almost seems to be counterproductive for those who are seeking to try and restrict this tiny percentage of the population who wants to be able to make flexible choices with vaccines,” she said of the Villalba proposal. “People become very concerned and very vocal, and they get involved in the legislative process and it seems like things get worse.”
For now, the new organization’s strength appears to lie in its mobilizing abilities. A February campaign finance report showed just over $1,000 in contributions. And while its members made their presence felt in Villalba’s race, he still managed to win with 55 percent of the vote.
But Villalba said that without the engagement of the group, he would have expected his margin of victory to be larger.
It also may have accomplished a broader goal. The lawmaker said that for the 2017 legislative session, he does not plan to re-file his bill narrowing exemptions to the state’s vaccine requirements.
“I’m not interested in a suicide mission on this issue,” he said. “I sense — and this is unfortunate — the only way a bill like this gets any traction is an even worse large-scale outbreak, between now and session. Short of that, I just don’t think there is going to be the appetite to do this bill.”
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2016/04/02/pac-mobilizes-defend-vaccine-exemptions-texas/.