Reporting from the Texas Legislature, with investigation and analysis of the state's economy, public policy, education, and more. 

Pickett Tosses Stickland Out of Committee

House Transportation Committee Chairman Joe Pickett apparently threw Representative Jonathan Stickland out of his committee tonight over an allegation that Stickland had falsely signed up witnesses for a bill, according to Tim Eaton of the Austin American-Statesman.

Pickett, D-El Paso, ultimately had one of the House sergeants escort a fuming Stickland, R-Bedford, from the committee room in the Capitol.

An Unstable Economy Is Not the Time for Tax Cuts.

Property tax appraisals going out around Texas right now likely will give a boost to the Senate’s property tax cut proposals over the House plan for sales tax cuts. But a look at some of the appraisals show the Senate plan is too little to make a real difference to homeowners in fast growth areas. And an honest look at the state of the state’s economy finds the House plan borders on fiscal irresponsibility rather than fiscal conservatism.

The Texas economy is poised for a contraction, and, with that, comes a major decline in state government revenues. This may not be the time for tax cuts, even if this KPRC-TV map clearly shows the pain of rising appraisals, at least in Harris County. For an interactive version, click here.

KPRC Tax Map

 

A Hail of a Storm Is Brewing in the Senate

 

The first report of golf ball-sized hail came into the Hidalgo County sheriff’s office at 5:20 p.m. on April 20, 2012. Within minutes, another report arrived of baseball-sized hail in Mission, with the winds blowing 50 miles per hour. Over the next 20 minutes, drivers tried to crowd their cars under business awnings. Windows were shattered. Hail knocked holes in rooftops. Unfortunate animals were beaten to death. The storm was a second wallop for the Lower Rio Grande Valley as it recovered from a similar storm a month earlier. The McAllen Monitor reported that the insurance industry paid out $556 million in claims to homeowners and another $47 million to vehicle owners.

Then the lawsuits began. There were thousands of lawsuits against insurance companies and adjusters, alleging low-ball payments on claims. These lawsuits led to Senate Bill 1628 by Senator Larry Taylor of Friendswood currently on the Intent Calendar for possible debate as early as today.

This legislation has pitted tort reform groups representing the insurance industry against the trial lawyers in what has become a biennial legislative rivalry. What makes this fight different this year is that there are major Texas businesses taking the trial lawyers’ side of the argument: car dealerships with vulnerable inventories of vehicles on open lots, Trammel Crow Residential, Centex Homes, Sovereign Bank and La Quinta Inns & Suites.

“My business clients have no interest in pursuing frivolous claims nor do they ever wish to engage in lawsuit abuse. However, they do expect the legislature to protect their interests against insurance companies which unfairly deny or delay legitimate claims,” wrote Dallas Haynes and Boone lawyer Ernest Martin Jr. in a letter delivered to senators last week on behalf of the businesses. Martin said his clients are worried about the “unintended consequences of a bill that does much more harm to business interests than it does to curb perceived abused in a single category of hailstorm claims.”

Advantage: House

Watching the Texas House today, I found myself wondering whether it would be sacrilegious and/or offensive to thank the Lord Jesus for Joe Straus, who as Speaker of the Texas House is effectively running state government right now.  

The main event on the floor, as R.G. previewed this morning, was the preliminary passage of two tax bills authored by Ways & Means Chairman Dennis Bonnen, one proposing a cut to the state sales tax rate, the other to the franchise tax rate. Taken together, the result would be $4.9 billion in biennial tax cuts, and a number of Democrats, including Donna Howard, Chris Turner, Sylvester Turner, and Armando Walle, offered cogent arguments against making such cuts, especially at a moment when the state economy is vulnerable as a result of lowish oil prices, and with the school finance ruling still pending.

Since this is Texas, however, the tax cuts passed. The only surprise was in the lopsided margins. 141 legislators voted for HB 31, the sales tax bill; no one voted against it. More than half the Democrats in the chamber voted against the franchise tax cuts, HB 32, but it nonetheless passed easily, 116-29. Perhaps most significant at all was a vote cast during the debate over the latter bill itself.

Accusations of Political Payback Rise in Senate Ethics Debate -- Updated

Senate Bill 19 was described by sponsor Van Taylor during a floor debate today as “generational” ethics reform, but when an amendment was offered to bar employment and co-investing between legislators, Senator John Whitmire erupted with accusations that Taylor and Don Huffines were trying to turn the legislation into unethical political payback.

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