Wed May 6, 2015 11:47 am By R.G. Ratcliffe

Years ago during one of the legislative interims, I was cutting through the Texas House chamber when I saw a man standing behind one of the chairs in about the middle of the south side of the seats. He was rubbing the back of the chair and looking toward the speaker’s podium. As I got closer, I could see the man was former U.S. House Speaker Jim Wright, but it seemed so out of place that all I could think to do was say his name with a question mark at the end.

Wright turned, smiled and said something like, “This was my seat. I just wanted to stop by here because I have so many fond memories of this place.”

It was Wright’s election from Weatherford to that seat in 1946 that set him on the path of becoming one of the most powerful politicians in the United States, serving as the U.S. House speaker from 1987 until 1989.

Wright died has died at the age of 92. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram has an obituary by Dave Montgomery, who covered Wright in his rise through the U.S. House leadership. Montgomery’s reporting also played a major role in the ethics scandal that led Wright to become the first speaker to resign from office in U.S. history.

On a personal note, during that era, I was a reporter for the Star-Telegram in Austin. Every now and then, I would get a letter from Wright in which he had pasted one of my stories to a piece of paper and marked it up with a red pen to demonstrate the inadequacy of my reporting. I was especially sure to receive such a letter if I wrote anything remotely positive about Republican Phil Gramm. 

 

Tue May 5, 2015 3:52 pm By R.G. Ratcliffe

The Houston Chronicle is reporting that a right wing political group has been secretly recording conversations with members of the Texas House in an apparent effort to discredit them and unseat Speaker Joe Straus.

The undercover video campaign represents a new front by conservative groups to target moderate Republicans and tilt the Texas Legislature further to the right.

Several House Republican lawmakers already have expressed concerns with some of the group’s tactics, saying they aggressively were approached last week – inside and outside the Capitol – by men who used hidden cameras to secretly videotape a series of encounters that has raised alarms for Capitol security.

John Beria, spokesman for Austin-based nonprofit the American Phoenix Foundation, said the group has 16 staffers working on the project and has amassed more than 800 hours of covert footage of lawmakers, including “guys confessing to pretty serious criminal acts.”

 

Tue May 5, 2015 9:54 am By R.G. Ratcliffe

On today’s House calendar there is a bill by Representative Phil King of Weatherford that would make Warner Brothers Foghorn Leghorn proud. As the Southern-accented rooster would say: “Two half nothin’s is a whole nothin’ and I know what I’m talking about.”

The bill is HB 1110 by King to establish a process for Texas to choose delegates if or when a national constitutional convention is called. It’s the kind of bill you pass when you want to give the Convention of the States Project what they want without giving them what they want.

The Convention of the States is trying to force Congress to call a constitutional convention under Article V to pass a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. When the topic came up before King’s House Select Committee on State and Federal Power and Responsibility earlier this session, witnesses testified for far more to be included in such a national convention, including the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, AKA Obamacare, and term limits for Congress and the federal courts. The mere fact that what is included in a constitutional convention cannot necessarily be controlled has led the Eagle Forum and the John Birch Society to oppose the calls for a constitutional convention.

Actual legislation to call for a constitutional convention on such items as a balanced budget amendment or term limits for Congress – HJR 77, HJR 78 and HJR 79 – are all in the House Calendars Committee – the site of many a legislative bill murder in the past.

So given the reality that the legislation to upend our national government may never reach the House floor, how do you satisfy those members of the public who are calling for a constitutional convention? You run up a bill on how to select delegates if such a convention ever occurs. (The Constitution is silent on how delegates to such a convention would be chosen, but a very good argument can be made that Congress would establish the convention process, including how delegates are chosen. We really don’t know, because there’s never been such a convention under our current Constitution.)

You can read the House Research Organization report about the process of delegate selection in HB 1110. I’m not going to bother with the details. But consider this, delegates would have to take an oath that they are limited to voting only on whatever was included in the Texas call for a convention.

By my reading, if that Texas call is limited to a federal balanced budget amendment, but the convention also considered term limits for federal judges, the Texas delegates by oath of office would have to cast a present, not voting vote. If delegates from those states that regularly vote Democratic in presidential elections wanted to add gun control measures, well, those Texans also would have to cast present but not voting votes.

The House may well spend a great deal of time debating this measure today and the vote most likely will be along party lines. But it’s a bill that is unlikely to ever be used, and its passage will just give politicians the ability to say they did something without actually doing anything.

So when Phil King takes the front microphone to promote HB 1110 today, remember the words of Foghorn Leghorn: “As senior rooster ‘round here, it’s my duty, and my pleasure, to instruct junior roosters in the ancient art of roostery.” 

Tue May 5, 2015 7:39 am By R.G. Ratcliffe

dps drug seizure

An analysis of Texas Department of Public Safety records by the Austin newspaper clearly demonstrates what I’ve been contending about the agency’s role in border security: Director Steve McCraw is like the hunter who shoots at everything that flies and claims everything that falls.

The Austin American-Statesman today reported that McCraw, in his efforts to obtain up to $800 million in additional border security funding, has fed the legislature with statistics on drug seizures on the border region that includes every drug seizure by every law enforcement agency, local, state and federal. McCraw’s reports leave the impression that DPS is largely responsible for those seizures. But the newspaper reports that DPS’ direct contribution to the effort has contributed only about 10 percent of all the seizures.

State Representative Cesar Blanco of El Paso has been critical of the DPS efforts and has been trying to obtain similar records from McCraw. The agency rebuffed Blanco’s efforts, but the Statesman obtained the telling evidence using the public information act. When the newspaper presented the evidence to Blanco, he reacted:

Blanco, a former military intelligence analyst, said the figure raises questions about how forthright DPS has been with state legislators contemplating a historic increase in border security spending.

DPS Director Steve McCraw has “failed in his duty to provide vital information to the legislative body at a time when important budgetary decisions were being made,” Blanco said. “Hundreds of millions of tax dollars are at stake, and lawmakers should have answers from agencies.”

The newspaper’s examination of the agency data also showed that by many of DPS’ own productivity measures, troopers’ activity along the border is lower than other parts of the state. The number of closed criminal investigations there, for example, dropped 50 percent between 2009 and 2014 — the steepest dip of any region of the state.

DPS spokesman Tom Vinger told the newspaper that the records did not really reflect the state police role in a coordinated team effort to fight the smuggling of drugs and people.

“Texas leaders did not direct the department to issue more traffic citations or warnings, seize drugs or make arrests,” Vinger said in an email. He added that trying to identify DPS’ specific contribution to drug seizure numbers was “like trying to determine if a basketball team won a game by asking the point guard how many points he scored.”

“Numbers do not secure the border,” he wrote.

The legislative budget writers need to ask some serious questions about the border surge that began under former Governor Rick Perry and has continued under Governor Greg Abbott. Is the political rhetoric of border security worth so little bang for the buck – especially when the proposals on the table spend an additional half-billion to almost a billion dollars?

(AP Photo of a drug seizure in 2011 by DPS and U.S. Customs and Border Control | Eric Gay)

Mon May 4, 2015 3:09 pm By R.G. Ratcliffe

The Texas Senate ran over the voters of Denton today by sending Governor Greg Abbott a bill to prohibit local governments from adopting bans on oil and gas drilling within a city limits. The bill was in response to Denton voters last year passing a ban on hydraulic fracturing.

Overturning the ban has been a key issue for Abbott, who called local restrictions on drilling, plastic grocery bags and limits on tree cutting a “patchwork quilt” of ordinances. Abbott said Texas is being “California-ized.”

While overturning the drilling ban has essentially sailed through the Legislature with the support of the Texas Oil & Gas Association, similar legislation to halt city ordinances banning plastic bags or regulating tree cutting have generally stalled in House and Senate committees.

But the Texas Municipal League has warned its members that another piece of legislation—SB 1806 by Senator Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls – is a surprise piece of legislation to bar cities from regulating an activity performed under a license issued by the state. According to TML:

The bill is nothing less than a “stealth super-preemption bill.” In addition to making dramatic changes to the way that city ordinances interplay with state law, it is difficult to envision how many city ordinances would be voided should this bill pass. That’s because there are easily more than 400 state licensed activities or occupations. Here are just a few examples:

1. Payday and auto title lenders are licensed by the state’s Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner. Thus, any city regulation of payday lending would be void.

2. Oil and gas operators receive permits from the Texas Railroad Commission. Thus, any city regulation of oil and gas drilling in the city limits would be void.

3. Bars and restaurants receive licenses/permits to operate from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission and the Texas Department of State Health Services. Thus, any city public health or sanitation regulation that would apply to these entities would be void.

4. Fireworks stands receive a permit from the Texas Department of Insurance. Thus, any city prohibition against fireworks would be preempted.

5. Thousands of businesses receive licenses/permits from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Thus, any city ordinance, including building codes or even zoning ordinances, wouldn’t apply to those businesses.

The bottom line is that S.B. 1806 could essentially exempt any licensee from any type of city regulation.

Estes told me that his bill is not intended to have any of those consequences. He said he took the bill from Abbott’s office, and he removed plastic bags to have a broader bill. Estes said a city will be able to regulate anything not specifically regulated by state law.

“Some of the fears they are raising are unfounded,” Estes said. “The bill is not an attempt to stifle their (TML) constituencies.”

TML initially had objected to HB40 to overturn local drilling bans, but agreed to drop its opposition when the bill was amended in the House to allow cities to continue regulating setbacks and the surface activity of drilling. But the bill prohibits outright bans on drilling. Many people in North Texas have objected to having wells drilled near residential neighborhoods, and some scientific evidence points to the drilling activity as being a cause of minor earthquakes.

The final Senate for on HB 40 was 24-7. Senator Jane Nelson, whose district includes Denton, was the only Republican to vote against the measure.