Journalism in the public interest for Northeast Texas

Category archive


Texas close to gaining first reservoir in 20 years

in Latest News/State by

The Bois d’Arc Creek Reservoir was recently approved for its second $500 million loan as the project nears the beginning of construction in North Texas. The dam and accompanying man-made lake will be Texas’ first new major reservoir in almost two decades.

Life in the rural, North Texas county of Fannin is about to change in a big way as construction begins on Texas’ first new reservoir in nearly two decades.

The Bois d’Arc Creek Reservoir is expected to eventually provide water for 1.7 million people serviced by the North Texas Municipal Water District. But first, nearly 2,000 workers will converge on the 10,000-person county seat of Bonham during the five-year project that will create a 16,641-acre lake in the backyard of the town by 2022, said City Manager Sean Pate.

Bonham “is expecting something like an oil boom to come with the construction,” Pate said. “Then, we expect people to stay because of … Texans’ fascination with lakes. This is going to create a lot of changes in our community.”

The last time a major reservoir was constructed in Texas was 1999, and water-supply reservoirs seemed to be going out of fashion as environmental regulations tightened and different avenues for water supply opened up. The Bois d’Arc Creek Reservoir could point to a changing tide in the search for additional drinking water resources, said former Texas Water Development Board Chairman Bech Bruun, who oversaw the agency when it approved the project’s plans.

But in the rural Fannin County land that’s slated to become a lake bed, opposition to the reservoir is stronger than ever.

“They have water already, and they just want to build this reservoir for inessential uses,” said Harold “Thump” Witcher Jr., a Fannin County farmer and rancher whose land is located in the lake’s planned boundary. “They want to turn it around and take people’s farm and ranch land away so people can water their lawns.”

Landowners like Witcher are likely out of options to block the reservoir because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued the final federal permit earlier this month for the water district to begin construction.

Fannin County won’t receive most of the reservoir’s drinking water, which will be piped 35 miles away to a treatment plant in Leonard and will provide water to much of northeast Dallas, but the county — and the city of Bonham — are expected to experience the most direct economic impact from the lake. The lake will increase housing values and generate roughly $20 million annually in recreational economic activity in Fannin, according to a study done by the Army Corps of Engineers before it issued the final federal permit.

The anticipated economic upside has city and county officials excited about the reservoir, despite the adjustments to daily life that may be needed, Pate said. The planned lake is expected to draw boaters, fishers and sightseers to the area, Pate said.

“There are definitely some challenges that come with a population jolt,” he said. “A lot is going to change, but there’s just too much good to come from a project like this that it outweighs any of the drawbacks.”

Witcher said there’s a disconnect between what local leaders and average citizens think about the reservoir.

“The Bonham City Council and the mayor all think it’s going to be the finest thing in the world, but if you actually talk to the populace themselves, they’re actually not that in favor of it,” he said. “People are losing their homes and their way of life, and people need to remember that this is a water reservoir, not a recreational facility.”

Construction will begin in the coming months on the reservoir, which is expected to cost $1.2 billion, said Janet Rummel, spokesperson for the North Texas Municipal Water District.

The massive price tag for the reservoir is going to be paid by the district through loans from the Texas Water Development Board’s State Water Implementation Fund for Texas. The board has approved  two loans of more than $500 million, the most recent on Feb. 15. The loans will be paid back over several decades by raising water rates in the district, Rummel said.

“It’s one of the bigger price tags that we’ve seen in Texas in recent history in terms of water infrastructure,” said Bruun.

Part of the price will go toward acquiring the land needed for the dam and reservoir from Witcher and his fellow landowners. He estimates 200 people live in the area.

The water district has already purchased 85 percent of the land necessary for the reservoir, Rummel said. Witcher said he has not begun negotiating with the company. If he refuses to sell his property, the state government could use the power of eminent domain to acquire it.

“I’m not doing anything until I’m forced to leave, but right now we’re kind of just dead in the water,” Witcher said.

Construction on the dam is expected to take three years, followed by another two years for the lake to fill. The region is currently enduring a moderate drought, but Rummel said the dry conditions shouldn’t affect the timeline of the project, assuming the rain returns by the time the dam is completed.

As Texas heads toward building its 189th major water-supply reservoir, the rural farmers and ranchers of Fannin County are bracing for change as their land becomes a water source for the Dallas suburbs.

“I’m going to retire at the end of March, and my whole dream my whole life has been to retire and live here and enjoy my place finally,” said Witcher, whose family has owned the land since 1865. “I’m going to have to move. I don’t know what I’m going to do and how this is all going to shake out.”

The article above comes from The Texas Tribune. Paul Cobler is a water reporting fellow at the Tribune. The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Scrap new Texas voter ID law, plaintiffs tell federal judge (Texas Tribune)

in State by

Texas’ softer voter ID law doesn’t fix the discrimination in the old measure, the state’s legal opponents told a judge Wednesday.

A new law softening Texas’ strict voter identification requirements doesn’t absolve the lawmakers from intentionally discriminating against minority voters in 2011 — nor would it properly accommodate those voters going forward, the state’s opponents in a long-running lawsuit argued Wednesday.

“Unfortunately, what the court is in the midst of is a larceny in progress,” Chad Dunn, a lawyer representing some of the challengers, told U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, accusing the Texas Legislature of trying to skirt responsibility for its sins of discrimination — reminiscent of state actions in the 1950s and 1960s. “It is a litigation strategy masquerading as a legislative function.”

Dunn was speaking about Senate Bill 5, which Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law last week. It loosens a 2011 voter ID law — known as the nation’s most stringent — that courts have ruled purposefully burdened Latino and black voters.

Dunn and other plaintiffs’ attorneys argued Ramos should void all provisions of the 2011 law, known as Senate Bill 14. In doing so, she would effectively invalidate the new law and return Texas to life before photo ID requirements.

Lawyers for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Wednesday portrayed SB 5 as a good-faith effort to fix problems multiple federal judges identified in the 2011 law, and called on Ramos to consider the new law a valid remedy — without levying penalties on the state.

“Mr. Dunn has told you a story this morning,” argued Matthew Frederick, the state’s deputy solicitor general. “He has painted a caricature of this state, a caricature of the Legislature and a caricature of SB 5.”

Ramos, who made no rulings Wednesday, asked parties to file briefs on their positions by June 12.

Last year, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Senate Bill 14 disproportionately targeted minority voters who were less likely to have one of seven forms of identifications it required they show at the polls. Ramos upped the ante in April, ruling the state discriminated on purpose. Ramos was instructed to consider a remedy for the violations, and her ruling raised the possibility she could invoke a section of the Voting Rights Act to place Texas under federal oversight of its election laws — a process called preclearance.

Seeking to avoid that fate, the state’s Republican-dominated Legislature enacted SB 5, frantically pushing it to the finish line in the final days of the legislative session. In doing so, state leaders made clear that it was aimed at pleasing the courts more than anything.

“I know a court has ruled otherwise, but as someone who was here in 2011, I don’t believe there’s any evidence that we intended to discriminate,” Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, the bill’s House sponsor, said last month in a chamber debate.

Ramos temporarily softened the ID rules for the 2016 elections, and the new law somewhat follows its lead.  It would allow people without photo ID to vote if they presented alternate forms of ID and signed affidavits swearing a “reasonable impediment” kept them from obtaining what was otherwise required.

Those voters could present documents such as utility bills, bank statements or paychecks. Those found to have lied about not possessing photo ID could be charged with a state felony, which carries a penalty of 180 days to two years in jail.

Under the bill, Texans who own a qualifying photo ID must still present it at the polls. Those include: a state driver’s license or ID card, a concealed handgun license, a U.S. passport, a military ID card, a U.S citizenship certificate or an election identification certificate.

“The law as enacted tracks the interim remedy ordered by this Court and agreed to by plaintiffs and defendants,” Paxton argued in a brief this week.

On Wednesday, Frederick asked Ramos to consider whether SB 5 would fully fix the old law’s effects, and to do so before Aug. 10 — to accommodate deadlines at the Texas Secretary of State’s Office.

The state’s legal foes suggested the law wouldn’t a fully address the discrimination, but they argued that question was moot. Ramos should wipe clean all elements of SB 14, they argued, returning Texas to a time when voter registration cards and other non-photo ID sufficed.

“We think, at best, it’s duct tape on a discriminatory law,” Gerald Hebert, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center and an attorney for the plaintiffs, told reporters. “It’s an amendment to a bill that’s gone.”

Under the plaintiffs’ scenario, Ramos would later consider whether she should place Texas under federal electoral supervision.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday called a special session of the Texas Legislature starting July 18. Abbott said that after legislators address a bill to keep some state agencies from shuttering, he’ll add another 19 items to the agenda. [link]
  • A federal judge has ruled — for the second time — that Texas lawmakers intentionally discriminated against Latino and black voters in passing a strict voter identification law in 2011. [link]

The article above comes from The Texas Tribune. Jim Malewitz is an investigative journalist for the Tribune. The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

School finance legislation is pronounced dead (Texas Tribune)

in Education/State by

Senate Education Chairman Larry Taylor on Wednesday afternoon said that he would not appoint conferees to negotiate with the House on a proposed school finance overhaul. “That deal is dead,” he said.

An effort to overhaul the state’s beleaguered school finance system has been declared dead after the Texas Senate Education Committee’s chairman said Wednesday that he would not appoint conferees to negotiate with the House.

“That deal is dead,” Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, said.

Taylor’s remarks come after his counterpart in the House, Dan Huberty, R-Houston, gave a passionate speech in which he said he would not accept the Senate’s changes to House Bill 21 and would seek a conference committee with the Senate.

HB 21 was originally intended to inject $1.5 billion into the state’s funding for the majority of public schools and to simplify some of the complex, outdated formulas for allocating money to school districts across the state. The Senate took that bill, reduced the funding to $530 million, and added what many public education advocates have called a “poison pill”: a “private school choice” program that would subsidize private school tuition and homeschooling for kids with disabilities.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick pronounced the bill dead in a statement Wednesday afternoon.

“Although Texas House leaders have been obstinate and closed-minded on this issue throughout this session, I was hopeful when we put this package together last week that we had found an opening that would break the logjam. I simply did not believe they would vote against both disabled children and a substantial funding increase for public schools,” he said in the statement. “I was wrong. House Bill 21 is now dead.”

House Speaker Joe Straus said in a statement Wednesday that the Senate has not prioritized school finance reform this session.

“We appointed members of a conference committee today because the House was willing to continue to work on public school finance immediately. Unfortunately, the Senate walked away and left the problems facing our schools to keep getting worse,” he said.

HB 21 was the first time in years that the Legislature has taken up major school finance reform without a court mandate.

“Members, some of your schools will be forced to close in the next year based on the committee substitute of House Bill 21,” as passed by the Senate, Huberty said, before moving to go to conference. “I refuse to give up. I’ll continue trying. Let’s at least attempt to rescue this bill.”

The House voted 134-15 to request a conference committee with the Senate on the bill.

Huberty chastised the Senate for carving out the funding for schools as well as the fixes to the formula intended to make the system more equitable.

“The new version contains no method of finance,” he said. “Ladies and gentlemen, the budget is closed. There is no money in the budget for that bill.”

Taylor has said he would not agree on a version of the bill without the “private school choice” program.  “There won’t be a conference committee,” he said.

Taylor contested Huberty’s statement that the Senate hadn’t considered any method for funding the bill. He said he had talked with Huberty on Tuesday about creating extra money by deferring payments to management care organizations through Medicaid. “There was a source of funding,” he said. “Unfortunately, what was said on the House floor was not true.”

The Texas Supreme Court ruled last year that the state’s system for allocating money to public schools was constitutional but fundamentally flawed, or “lawful but awful,” Huberty reminded the House. “Over the first month of the session, we tried to work with every interested party to craft a plan that would help every school district.”

He said the “private school choice” program the Senate stuck in his bill would not help students with disabilities, because it would provide each with about $8,000 of state money to attend specialized private schools that cost much more: an average of $15,000. Huberty had tried to get the Senate to include one of his own bills, creating a $20 million grant program for schools helping students with autism, instead of the voucher-like program for kids with special needs. Taylor ultimately included both in the version voted out of the Senate.

House Appropriations Chairman John Zerwas, R-Richmond, made a nonbinding motion to prevent House members of the conference committee from including any voucher-like programs in the school finance bill. That motion passed 101-45.

The motion upset Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, who authored the only “private school choice” bill in the House, which would subsidize private school tuition for students with special needs. “You’re saying you don’t want the conference body to even consider having any kind of special-needs school choice? I know all of you have a place in your heart for these children,” he said.

Simmons made a motion to allow House conferees to consider voucher-like programs for kids with disabilities. The motion failed 47-89.

“It’s really amazing to me that our body is so afraid from helping out special-needs children with education choice that they wouldn’t even have the conferees discuss it,” Simmons later told The Texas Tribune.

He said Texas would probably never be able to get school finance reform unless both chambers passed some form of “private school choice.”

“As long as the Senate is as it is going forward, every school finance bill will have some kind of a choice attached to it. So either the House is going to say, ‘We never want any more money,’ or else they’re going to say, ‘We want some type of choice system that works,’” Simmons said.

Patrick had offered to barter for the “private school choice” program with a bill that tweaks the state’s A-F grading system for districts and schools. He said he would delay the system’s implementation to 2019. The Senate is expected to take up that piece of legislation, House Bill 22, Wednesday — and it won’t include a delay of the system’s implementation, Taylor said Wednesday.

School superintendents really want that delay to the A-F grading system, but not enough to concede on any type of voucher-like program, which they said would suck money from public schools. More than 40 public education advocacy groups sent letters to all Senate offices asking them not to vote for the bill, before the Senate voted to approve the bill.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • The Texas Senate voted to approve a bill that would simplify funding formulas for public schools and let parents use state money to send their kids with disabilities to private schools or pay for homeschooling.
  • A Senate committee passed the House’s major school finance reform bill, after adding a controversial provision subsidizing private school tuition for special needs students — a move unlikely to go over well in the House.
  • The Senate Education Committee discussed a bill that would radically simplify the state’s school finance formula, stripping it of some antiquated provisions. Parents and educators who testified wanted a few new provisions added in.

The article above comes from The Texas Tribune. Aliyya Swaby reports on public education for the Tribune. The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Texas lawmakers: State needs to act after black teen’s death by police (Texas Tribune)

in State by

In the aftermath of a police officer killing 15-year-old Jordan Edwards near Dallas, the Texas Legislative Black Caucus called on state leaders to work with legislators on police interactions and accountability.

Days after a Dallas-area police officer shot and killed a black 15-year-old in the passenger seat of a car, the Texas Legislative Black Caucus and other lawmakers made an emotional plea to state leaders Thursday morning to act to prevent police shootings.

Jordan Edwards, an honor student at Mesquite High School, was shot in the head with a rifle by Roy Oliver Saturday night as the teen’s brother drove away from officers. Oliver, who had been at the Balch Springs Police Department since 2011, was fired on Tuesday.

“There is nothing that we’re doing … in terms of the Legislature that is more important than eradicating this disease that is taking out these young, unarmed black men whose only crime seems to be being black in Texas and in America,” said Black Caucus chairwoman Rep. Helen Giddings, D-DeSoto, at a news conference at the Texas Supreme Court Building.

Giddings and other Democrats called on Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus to speak out about the shooting and push for changes in state laws on police interactions and accountability. Abbott released a statement to The Texas Tribune Wednesday, and Straus and Patrick sent statements shortly after the news conference Thursday morning.

“My heart goes out to the Edwards family during this incredibly difficult time,” Abbott said in his statement. “No parent should ever have to experience the pain of losing a child, and the Edwards family deserves a fair and full investigation into this tragedy.”

In Patrick’s statement, he placed emphasis on the current investigative process for police shootings.

“I expect the Balch Springs police department to fully investigate this incident and I have faith that justice will be served,” he said.

The Dallas County Sheriff’s Office and the District Attorney’s public integrity unit are conducting a criminal investigation into the shooting. The Balch Springs Police Department concluded its internal review with the firing of Oliver.

Straus also expressed grief for Edwards’ family and community, and responded to lawmakers’ pleas for action.

“Some very critical questions about Jordan’s death need to be answered fully and transparently,” Straus said in the statement. “All of us should be deeply concerned about these tragedies and their frequency, and I will work with any of my legislative colleagues who are interested in preventing similar tragedies in the future.”

A 2016 Tribune investigation into police shootings found that in 656 incidents where police shot at a person in Texas from 2010 through 2015, almost 17 percent of the people were unarmed. Of those where the race of the individual was known, almost half were black.

At the news conference, lawmakers said there is pending legislation that could help address police interactions and accountability that needs to be pushed to the chamber floors. The Sandra Bland Act, which was approved Tuesday by a Senate committee, would require training for officers on limiting use of force and understanding implicit bias. And Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, pointed to a bill passed unanimously by the Senate that would instruct police and high-schoolers about police interactions.

Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, said her House Bill 2044, which would also limit use of lethal force, is floundering in a House committee. For action, “it’s going to take the governor, the lieutenant governor and the speaker to take their heads out of the sand,” she said.

“Instead of muted responses, we need full-throated responses to deal not only with this situation but…with the broader problem,” said Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, chairman of the Legislature’s Mexican-American Caucus, at the news conference. “There are bills in the Legislature … that should be immediately moved to the floor so these things don’t happen again.”

Read related Tribune coverage: 

The article above comes from The Texas Tribune. Jolie McCullough develops data interactives and news apps and reports on criminal justice for the Tribune. The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

After police shoot and kill unarmed teen, Texas lawmakers consider next steps (Texas Tribune)

in State by

In the aftermath of the fatal shooting of an unarmed 15-year-old by police on Saturday night, Democrats in the state Capitol have pointed to relevant bills they say could prevent similar deaths.

After a police officer fatally shot an unarmed 15-year-old in the Dallas area Saturday night, Texas lawmakers are considering whether pending bills could prevent similar deaths — or if any legislative solution is even needed.

Jordan Edwards, a freshman at Mesquite High School, was sitting in the passenger seat of a car driving away from Balch Springs police when Officer Roy Oliver shot and killed him, according to a news release from the police department. Oliver and another officer had arrived at a house around 11 p.m. after receiving a 911 call about underage drinking at a party.

When the officers were in the house, they heard gunshots from outside and ran toward them, police said. Originally, the department said the car Edwards was in was backing toward officers when Oliver shot, but after Chief Jonathan Haber watched body camera footage, he said during a Tuesday news conference that Oliver fired his gun as the car was moving away from them. No weapons were found in the vehicle.

Haber then announced that Oliver had “violated several departmental policies” and had been fired. The lawyer for Edwards’ family posted on Twitter late Tuesday night that Oliver was appealing his termination. The Balch Springs Police Department did not return calls placed by the Tribune on Wednesday.

Since the shooting, Democrats in the Capitol have pointed to relevant bills that have faced obstacles as they have moved through the chambers.

State Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, told the Tribune Wednesday that law enforcement agencies should be punished if they don’t report officer-involved shootings, as House Bill 245 would mandate. The bill, which is stuck in the House Calendars Committee, is a followup to one passed last legislative session that requires all law enforcement agencies in the state to send a form to the Attorney General’s Office with basic information on every police shooting. The new bill would push the law a step further to punish the agencies who aren’t complying — though Johnson has conceded almost all are.

Johnson said it’s the only way to prove that there is a problem, particularly with unarmed people of color disproportionately dying during police encounters.

A 2016 Tribune investigation into police shootings found that in 656 incidents where police shot at a person in Texas from 2010 through 2015, almost 17 percent of the people were unarmed. Of those where the race of the individual was known, almost half were black. But those numbers come from incomplete data, obtained by the Tribune through open records requests often returned with missing or redacted information.

“We’re not going to have a robust policy discussion on this … without data that these aren’t one-off situations,” Johnson said. “There’s going to have to be proof that there is a problem.”

On Tuesday, State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, asked to adjourn the Senate in memory of Edwards, touting the boy’s academic and athletic accomplishments.

“Members, I ask that we include in our prayers the Edwards family who has suffered a devastating loss. I ask that you also include a prayer for wisdom, a prayer for patience, tolerance. Include also a prayer for us to all attempt to gain a better understanding of those for whom we may feebly think have little in common with us,” West said.

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said the Legislature had to do something. “It can’t just be rhetoric,” he said.

Coleman’s House Bill 2702, dubbed the Sandra Bland Act, in part would require officers be trained in de-escalation tactics and implicit bias. But the bill and its Senate companion have been stripped of many of their initial provisions on the long road through the Legislature. Earlier versions would have prevented police from arresting people for offenses that generally only have fines as a punishment and required counseling and more training for officers who racially profile drivers.

As an example of what he sees as a disparity between legislative actions to benefit police and those to benefit civilians, he noted the Senate’s passage of a bill that would fund bulletproof vests for all officers on patrol in Texas.

“That’s concrete. That’s real,” Coleman said. “We have to have the same levels of things for people that are victims. It has to be concrete and real results.”

State Rep. James White, R-Hillister, said he doesn’t currently see the need for legislative action in response to the shooting. Law enforcement has appropriately handled the incident so far, he said.

“That’s how we should do things,” White said.

The article above comes from The Texas Tribune. Johnathan Silver and Jolie McCullough are reporters at the Tribune. The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Aiming to stop suicides, Texas Senate supports crackdown on cyberbullying (Texas Tribune)

in State by

The state Senate Wednesday unanimously approved a bill dubbed “David’s Law” that’s aimed at curbing teen suicides by cracking down on cyberbullying.

The state Senate cleared legislation Wednesday aiming to curb teen suicides by cracking down on cyberbullying — relentless online attacks that have pushed some Texas teens to take their own lives.

Senate Bill 179, dubbed “David’s Law,” unanimously cleared the chamber, after the bill’s Democratic author, Sen. José Menéndez, supported amendments from Republicans who were initially concerned the legislation went too far in levying penalties and requiring action from school districts.

The bill is named for David Molak, a 16-year-old Alamo Heights High School student who committed suicide in January 2016 after classmates online had mocked his appearance for months and threatened physical violence.

“I believe we have the responsibility to act before more children take their lives,” Menéndez, who distributed copies of some of the bullying messages to his colleagues, said in an impassioned Senate floor speech. “The bullies now are on our children’s phones and on their computers.”

The bill classifies cyberbullying as a misdemeanor and allows courts to issue subpoenas to unmask people who anonymously harass minors online. It would also require schools to adopt cyberbullying policies and report instances of such actions to the parents of victims and perpetrators.

“What we’re trying to do is create early awareness if something’s wrong,” Menéndez told reporters.

Before it hit the chamber floor, the legislation also required school districts to report on cyberbullying to police and implement certain cyberbullying prevention efforts. But Republicans added several amendments — accepted by Menéndez — that made such actions optional amid concerns about burdening small districts.

The amendments also narrowed what actions would trigger a more severe Class A misdemeanor for repeat offenders or those who bully a youth who later commits or attempts suicide. The change tightened language that might automatically presume a suicide was caused by the bullying, specifying that the more severe charge was only triggered if the bully intended to provoke such injuries.

State Sen. Brian Birdwell, a Granbury Republican who pushed for some of the changes, said he joined Menéndez in wanting to send a message that Texas would not tolerate cyberbullying, but “I wanted to do without setting what I thought was a dangerous presumptive precedent.”

Another amendment stripped language that would have allowed families to recover damages in court for physical, emotional or mental injuries. Even with the change, however, families could still ask courts for an injunction against an alleged bully.

Menéndez said he was happy to accept the changes and was then thrilled to see all 31 senators support the revised version.

“That sends a message to the House and a strong message to school districts,” he told reporters.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, told lawmakers that their bipartisan effort made him “proud.”

A separate version of the legislation has cleared a House committee.

The article above comes from The Texas Tribune. Jim Malewitz is an investigative reporter for the Tribune. The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

House proposal could claw back billions Texas voters approved for roads (Texas Tribune)

in State by

The Texas House’s chief budget writer filed legislation Friday that would allow lawmakers to claw back billions of dollars that voters approved for state highways, freeing them up for other budget needs.

Texans overwhelmingly voted in 2015 to boost funding for the state’s public roadways and bridges, which have strained under a growing population. Proposition 7 amended the Texas Constitution to route some taxes collected on car sales to the State Highway Fund.

But House Appropriations Chairman John Zerwas, R-Richmond, filed a resolution Friday that would cut that initial cash infusion, aiming to free up money at a time when cash is tight.

House Concurrent Resolution 108 could cut the first transfer under Proposition 7 of nearly $5 billion in half, but only if two-thirds of lawmakers in both the House and Senate support such a move.

It’s a prospect made possible by what some lawmakers have called a “safety valve” in Senate Joint Resolution 5, the legislation that the Legislature approved in 2015 to send Proposition 7 to voters later that year.

Zerwas’ office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Some 83 percent of voters supported Proposition 7, and it was widely cheered by top Texas leaders.

At the Texas Department of Transportation, agency officials have updated long-range plans with new highway projects under the assumption that the agency will have access to all of the Prop 7 money. Gov. Greg Abbott also released a proposed budget in January that called for directing all of the Prop 7 funds to TxDOT as voters intended.

“My fellow commissioners and I view this as a Texas voter mandate,” transportation commissioner Bruce Bugg, an Abbott-appointee, told reporters earlier this week.

But Texas lawmakers this session are trying to craft a budget with less money than the previous legislative session.

Tax cuts in 2015 cut available state revenues by about $4 billion, and a slowdown in the oil patch also shrunk the budgetary pie. A voter-approved transfer of funds to the highway fund would leave even fewer dollars available to put toward areas such as health care, education and the state’s collapsed foster care system.

Brandon Formby contributed to this report.

The article above comes from The Texas Tribune. Jim Malewitz is an investigative reporter at the Tribune. The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.


Backers hopeful Texas ready to screen welfare recipients for drug use (Texas Tribune)

in Latest News/State by

In the past eight years, Texas lawmakers have tried nearly a dozen times to pass a law requiring drug screenings or testing for applicants for state welfare benefits. Ahead of next year’s legislative session, supporters are hopeful momentum is finally on their side.

As of October, fewer than 63,000 Texans — less than 1 percent of the state’s population — were enrolled in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program that provides cash assistance for families struggling to pay for housing, food or utilities. Among the beneficiaries, 54,247 are children.

While the Lone Star State already has some of the strictest eligibility requirements in the country, Republican lawmakers have been determined to take advantage of a federal provision that would allow them to drug screen applicants and ban those who fail drug tests.

Keep Reading

Texas lawmakers hope election rhetoric doesn’t swamp beneficial trade deals

in Latest News/State by

United States Senator John Cornyn has been in politics long enough to know that hard line, campaign trail talk doesn’t always survive after elections. And he’s hoping — at least for Texas’ sake — that the tradition holds true this year on at least one issue: international trade.

If not, Cornyn could have his work cut out for him trying to keep intact current trade policies, and the benefits they bring to Texas. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have made trade issues hallmarks of their campaigns, each assailing trade deals to different degrees.

“While I think President Obama has been right on trade generally speaking, he hasn’t been a particularly effective spokesman for the benefits,” Cornyn said. “And I think a lot of that has to do with the internal divisions within his party on trade.”

That internal strife has seen Democratic nominee Clinton shift on the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-country trade pact Obama and Cornyn support, first calling it the “gold standard” but opposing it in the later months of her candidacy. The switch came after Clinton’s former rival and current supporter, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT. railed against more free trade policies he said will not prop up the middle class.

Meanwhile, GOP nominee Trump has called the North American Free Trade Agreement the country’s “worst trade deal” and has vowed to end or renegotiate the pact because he believes the agreement ships jobs overseas. Though his comments about Mexico often center on his infamous “rapists” and “murderers” comments and illegal immigration, he’s also said repeatedly stated that the country “beats” the United States on trade.

Keep Reading

Amid early voting rush, Texas sees voter ID hiccups

in Latest News/Local Government/State by

This much is clear after two days of early voting in Texas: Legal wrangling over the state’s voter identification law is stirring confusion at the polls.

Amid Texans’ mad dash to polling places this week, the front end of 12 days of voting before Election Day, civil rights groups and some voters are questioning how some county election officials are portraying the state’s voter identification requirements, which a federal judge softened in August.

Among the complaints in pockets of Texas: years-old posters inaccurately describing the rules — more than a dozen instances in Bexar County — and poll workers who were reluctant to tell voters that some could cast ballots without photo identification.

Though it’s not clear that anyone walked away from the polls because of misinformation or partial information, civil rights advocates called the sporadic reports troubling.

“Not everybody is an aggressive voter. Some people are shy and laid back, and if you’re told you have to have an ID, it might cause them to get out of line and go home,” said Jose Garza, a lawyer working for groups challenging the state’s strict 2011 voter ID law.

In July, a federal appeals court ruled that the law discriminated against minority groups, who were less likely to possess one of seven forms of acceptable photo identification.  

In August, a federal district judge drew up a temporary fix for the election, which splits Texans into two groups. Those who possess qualifying photo ID must bring it to the polls. Those who cannot “reasonably obtain” one must present a document showing their name and address, such as a utility bill, bank statement, paycheck or voter registration card. They must also sign a statement noting the “reasonable impediment” that prevented them from getting a photo ID.

Keep Reading

Go to Top