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

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?

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.

Mon May 4, 2015 11:59 am By By R.G. Ratcliffe

One of Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s grassroots advisory committee members apparently was a promoter of the Garland event that came under gunfire on Sunday. According to his Facebook page, Ken Emanuelson, a member of Patrick’s advisory panel, was present at the event when the shooting occurred and was locked down inside the Curtis Culwell Center.

Emanuelson posted photos from inside the event, including ones featuring organizer Pamela Geller and Geert Wilders, an anti-Muslim Dutch politician. Emanuelson gave a running commentary of Wilders’ speech on his twitter feed.

Emanuelson also posted photographs of the anti-Muhammad cartoons that the program was promoting through a contest. They featured the Muslim prophet with snakes coming from his beard, while another one featured convicted killer Charles Manson dressed as Muhammad.

ABC News is reporting this morning that one of the gunmen was a Muslim extremist from Arizona named Elton Simpson.

The shooting appears to be the culmination of goading by extremists on both sides of the debate. It began in January with dueling protests at the Culwell Center during a pro-Muslim “Stand With the Prophet in Honor and Respect event.” The event was held about a week after Muslim extremists killed 11 people at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo over its publications of cartoons making fun of Muhammad. Many Muslims find caricature of Muhammad highly offensive.

During the January event, the anti-Muslim protest was organized by the American Freedom Defense Initiative with Emanuelson helping promote it. Emanuelson told Breitbart Texas that he supported the event because it promoted free speech. “Whether one agrees with a particular message or opposes it, we should all be able to come together around the idea that every human being has a right to speak his or her mind,” Emanuelson said.

The AFDI followed up the January protest by organizing this past weekend’s event: a Muhammad cartoon contest with a cash award.  The Mirror of London is reporting that the Muslim extremist group ISIS is claiming responsibility for the attack Sunday.

What is clear in this incident is that the AFDI is an organization that promotes anti-Islamic feelings and likely held this event to provoke a reaction from radical Muslims. Whether Elton Simpson was a lone wolf terrorist or a sleeper cell for ISIS, he gave the AFDI a powerful public relations tool for the future.

After the Charlie Hebdo attack, I found many of the magazine’s cartoons to have more religious bigotry than satire, but no one should be killed for exercising freedom of speech. By that same token, AFDI had every right to hold its event this weekend. Protecting free speech is about protecting speech you loath as much as the speech you love.

So why make the connection to Dan Patrick and his grassroots advisory council? This is the same group that recently released a letter attacking Governor Greg Abbott’s proposal to expand pre-K programs in Texas? (Emanuelson is on Patrick’s council but was not one of the signers of the letter against pre-K.) I’m drawing the link because whether it is Patrick and his grassroots council or Abbott ordering the Texas State Guard to monitor the U.S. military’s Jade Helm exercises this summer, there is a pattern of the state leadership pandering to the fringe of Texas politics rather than the mainstream.

Just as fear of the Jade Helm exercise disparages the 200,000 military personnel in Texas, anti-radical Islamic groups such as the AFDI are creating an air of prejudice against the estimated 422,000 Muslims in Texas.     

Fri May 1, 2015 4:06 pm By R.G. Ratcliffe

The Texas House today took its dirty laundry off the Internet, removing from public view official video of a public committee meeting where transportation Chairman Joe Pickett ejected Representative Jonathan Stickland because of allegedly falsified witness registrations.

Prior to every House committee meeting, chairmen admonish the audience that only credentialed media are allowed to video or record the committee, but the public also is reassured that an official recording of the meeting is being made. But if it hadn’t been for some members of the public violating the rules at the House Transportation Committee meeting Thursday night to video record the confrontation, only the vaguest descriptions of the allegations and recriminations would be available.

The video was “locked up” because it had become part of an investigation into a violation of House rules, according to House General Investigating Chairman John Kuemple.

But removing the video from public view also meant it looked like a conspiracy by the House leadership to keep the truth from coming out. Stickland’s supporters were quick to shower him with blessings on Facebook.

“This little bit of juvenile payback by Tyrant Pickett effectively reveals who they are really afraid of: YOU and the liberty-lovin’ Texans that you speak for!” wrote one.  

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Fri May 1, 2015 1:56 pm By Erica Grieder

Kudos to senators Brandon Creighton and Paul Bettencourt, who managed to achieve something yesterday that I had concluded was a pretty well lost cause: they passed a property tax reform bill out of the Senate.

The bill, SB 1760, was authored by Creighton and would promote greater public awareness of how high Texas’s average property taxes are, and why, by requiring the comptroller to publish side-by-side rankings, mandating some explanation of proposed increases on ballots, and so on. Insofar as the measure calls for more transparency rather than more discipline, it eluded the opposition of local governments and snuck out of the Intergovernmental Relations committee last week. Once on the floor, it received an amendment by Bettencourt addressing what’s called the “effective tax rate”—it would require 60 percent of the members of any local government entity to approve property tax rates that would yield more total revenue than the jurisdiction raised via property taxes the year before.

Bettencourt’s amendment seems like an effort to approximate the effects of his own property tax reform bill, SB 182, which would have tightened current state rules about the “rollback rate,” a metric similar to the effective tax rate. As it stands, if a local government wants to set property tax rates at a level that would result in 8 percent total revenue growth, residents have the right to request a chance to vote on the tax rates themselves; Bettencourt’s bill would have cut the rate to 4 percent, and made the election mandatory. That bill, as I noted with exasperation earlier this week, is apparently dying of neglect in Senate Finance, having met with organized opposition from local governments, which would have been directly affected. We can’t say for sure what the effects would have been, but it’s a pretty safe bet that given the chance to vote against current property tax rates, many Texans would have done so. Yesterday’s amendment is different in two key respects. First, it caught everyone by surprise. Second, it isn’t as tough as Bettencourt’s original bill: it only requires local government officials to cast an unpleasant vote. And so, as Aman Batheja and Eva Hershaw note in their write-up of events, the bill, as amended elicited some grousing from the locals, but less than it might have and less than all the other property tax reform proposals of the session.

Overall, this is a step in the right direction; it’s the most meaningful property tax reform effort to emerge from either chamber thus far. Those of us who aren’t lobbying for local governments would prefer a more robust reform—Texas’s average property tax burdens are among the highest in the country, and the bill is more likely to illuminate that problem than to address it. But as Dan Patrick noted, in celebrating the passage of Creighton’s bill, that’s a worthwhile goal: “SB 1760 delivers true tax relief for Texas homeowners by placing a downward pressure on the oppressive growth of property taxes through transparency.” I agree with the lieutenant governor; one of the reasons I’m so appalled by the “property tax relief” included in the Senate’s budget is that it would only mitigate such pressure. By contrast Creighton’s bill, as amended by Bettencourt, is a real reform, and a step toward real relief.