Wed April 8, 2015 1:50 pm By R.G. Ratcliffe

The Legislature this year is eager to do away with local control: city plastic grocery bag bans or the use of red light cameras, restrictions on tree cutting or the carrying of firearms on municipal property—plus, the big one, banning hydraulic fracturing to drill for gas within a city limit.

But by a 20-11 vote today, the Senate made it clear that local control is just fine when a state official—including the senators themselves—is accused of committing an ethics crime ranging from election code violations to the corruption of bribery, perjury and abuse of office. Essentially, they voted to put the venue for prosecuting an alleged crime into the location where they will have the greatest influence over whether that crime is prosecuted, their own hometown.

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Wed April 8, 2015 1:32 pm By Paul Burka

I find the silence from the Governor’s Mansion deafening. It has been a long time since Greg Abbott weighed in on any major issue in the legislative session. As one who has put ethics front and center, you might think he would have concerns about the contracting scandal at HHS and making a determination on Kyle Janek’s future. He can’t be pleased that occupant of the office he previously held is an admitted lawbreaker (and Sid Miller at the Ag Department could be headed for trouble as well).

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Wed April 8, 2015 8:42 am By R.G. Ratcliffe

The Houston Chronicle’s Mike Ward is reporting that later today the Texas Senate will take up an ethics bill that, in my opinion, will end almost all ethics prosecutions in the state of Texas.

AUSTIN — A compromise has been reached to allow passage of a controversial Senate ethics bill that would allow state elected officials to be prosecuted in their home counties, rather than in Austin, the bill’s author confirmed Tuesday.

State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said she has agreed to remove the Attorney General’s office from having any involvement in the prosecutions of ethics violations, and to allow local prosecutors to handle the cases…

With Sens. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, and Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, and all Senate Democrats opposed to the anywhere-but-Austin prosecution exception for statewide officeholders, lawmakers and lobbyists, Huffman had been unable to get her bill called up for a vote by the full Senate.

Seliger last week had proposed allowing the Texas Rangers to investigate all cases, and to have a special prosecutor appointed by the chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court handle any charges filed.

With the Texas Rangers, lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Legislature generally believe they would get better outcomes in ethics investigations of them than those conducted by the Travis County district attorney’s office run by Democrat Rosemary Lehmberg, who stirred controversy two years for being arrested and serving jail time for drunk driving.

 

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Tue April 7, 2015 4:21 pm By R.G. Ratcliffe

Once upon a time, in the waning days of Democratic rule in Texas, a major warning sign of the party’s decline was when conservatives came to believe their party had drifted so far left that it no longer represented the state’s mainstream. When these conservatives eventually switched parties, the catchphrase was: I’m not leaving the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me.

This year, I’ve heard from more than one fiscal conservative – a Ronald Reagan or a George W. Bush Republican – that their party has moved so far right that they feel shunned like liberals. As one Republican consultant lamented to me about the hard right, “They probably think I’m a RINO.” For those who don’t know, that means Republican in Name Only.

Perhaps nothing demonstrates how far to the right the evangelical tea party agenda has pushed the Legislature than the fact Bill Hammond stood up at a news conference today with Democrats and human rights activists to oppose a proposed religious freedom constitutional amendment that could be used to discriminate against gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual people.

Hammond, chief executive officer of the Texas Association of Business, is no liberal. Nor is Hammond a RINO. Not by any stretch of the imagination. He is a staunch conservative with the credentials to prove it.

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Tue April 7, 2015 1:49 pm By Erica Grieder

The House Business & Industry Committee is meeting as I write this, and plans to consider a number of bills calling for Texas to raise the minimum wage. While not the hottest debate of the week, or even of the day, it’s a serious issue and I’m glad the committee is taking it up. I wish the entire Lege would give the idea a chance. In my view, a higher minimum wage would be good for Texas–and although any state considering such an idea should be prudent about potential unintended consequences, Texas specifically is well-hedged against the most obvious risks.

I laid out my reasoning in 2013, and the Texas-specific considerations laid out two years ago haven’t changed. But shortly after I wrote that piece, Barack Obama, in his 2014 State of the Union, called on Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. The issue thereby became more visible and although Congress did not heed the president’s call, a number of states did, and later that year several of them approved higher state minimum wages. (Barring a higher state wage, the federal minimum applies; this is the case in about half the states, including Texas.) So I would like to add a comment about the politics: despite appearances, this isn’t a partisan issue.

It’s true that Obama, a Democrat, championed the issue in 2014. The action since then, including in Texas, has been led by Democrats; Wendy Davis briefly raised the issue during her gubernatorial campaign last year, and the bills being heard in committee today were all filed by Democrats. Democrats have, in a sense, claimed ownership of the issue; after their sweeping losses in last year’s national elections, a number of Democrats took consolation in the fact that voters in four red states had approved referendums raising the minimum wage—this was evidence, in their view, of widespread support for the Democratic agenda.

I don’t begrudge Democrats for spinning it that way. Republicans have no one to blame but themselves, because they could and should have taken up the issue. The last president to raise the minimum wage was George W. Bush, and although he wasn’t unusually fiscally conservative, there are fiscal conservatives, like me, who have advocated for a higher minimum wage on both economic and moral grounds. Poverty is inefficient. And if someone is working full-time, they shouldn’t be poor. There are also conservatives who object to raising the minimum wage on philosophical grounds or who are leery of potentially adverse effects on employers. I think the former objection is good for college debates and Texas is well-hedged against the latter risks for reasons I described in the 2013 piece. But more importantly, having had this debate a number of times since 2013, I’ve found a lot of Republicans, even Tea Party conservatives, are receptive to the idea. As Gary Polland of Houston’s Red, White, and Blue put it, it’s not a left versus right issue; it’s a business versus labor issue. And despite the vaguely leftist connotations of “labor”, we’re not talking about teacher’s unions in this context. We’re talking about Texans, with jobs, who are apparently trying to be self-sufficient; the proposal concerns wages, not welfare. Conservatives can support that, obviously; that’s why the aforementioned minimum wage referendums were approved in four red states.

Texans, I suspect, would do the same, especially if the Lege asked them to consider a proposal that was tailored to mitigate risk (by exempting small employers, for example). So I commend Texas Democrats for raising the issue. But let’s not rule out the possibility that some Republicans might join them; they would need such support to pass any of these bills, and they might be able to find it.