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February 27, 2015      5:09 PM

TEC asks for recusal of Denton judge and social media follower of MQ Sullivan in lobby case

Ethics Commission’s attorney cites the fact that Judge Steven Burgess has been a Twitter follower of Sullivan’s, did not disclose that, and deleted his account after it was made known

Attorneys for the Texas Ethics Commission are asking for the recusal of the judge in Denton County who recently threw out the lobby case against Michael Quinn Sullivan, the prominent spokesman for Midland oilman Tim Dunn.

Eric Nichols, outside counsel for the commission, argued in a filing this week that Judge Steven Burgess should not be allowed to rule on the matter, in part, because he had previously been a follower of Sullivan’s on Twitter and did not disclose that.

Sullivan was one of the few people the judge followed on the social media platform.  

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By Scott Braddock

February 27, 2015      5:07 PM

Press Releases: Retired teacher health care, accreditation statuses, road construction, and the Unborn Child Due Process Act

February 27, 2015      5:01 PM

Local governments steel for a fight ahead of tax debate

“It’s about local people making local decisions.”

Local governments in Texas are fighting state government for control this legislative session, and could suffer a serious defeat in the Senate as soon as next week.

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, filed Senate Bill 182 earlier this year, which reduces the rollback tax rate from 8 percent to 4 percent. Bettencourt will lay out SB 182 with other property tax bills on Monday and public testimony will be taken Wednesday.

For cities as well as counties, SB 182 limits the revenue they collect from their citizens to fund different services like police and fire, said Lonnie Hunt, County Relations Officer with the Texas Association of Counties.

“By law, the main source of revenue counties have is the property tax,” Hunt said. “We don’t like that. Everybody hates the property tax. But, unfortunately, counties don’t have the option of saying, ‘Well, okay, we’ll find our money somewhere else.’ We don’t get all these other fees and taxes and other things other levels of government have access to. But the county sales tax - most counties don’t have that, but the ones that do, that was enacted as a property tax reduction rate.”

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By Jackie Wang

February 27, 2015      4:48 PM

Competing bill sponsors refused to back down in pre-k fight

It appears the first education skirmish of the session is getting underway

Two sides are gearing up for what could very well be the first education battle of the session, and it’s being waged over the education of the state’s most vulnerable 4-year-old children.

The rollout of Gov. Greg Abbott’s pre-kindergarten bill was almost perfect. He spoke of his preferred version in his State of the State speech. Former school board member-turned-Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, hinted at this week’s PTA Rally it would be unveiled and indeed it was and has already been referred to House Public Education.

Abbott also planned a picture-perfect Rick Perry-inspired tour of the School at St. George Place after addressing a luncheon of the highly influential Greater Houston Partnership.

“To improve our schools, we must build a strong foundation. Our goal should be to ensure all Texas students are performing at grade level in reading and math by the time they finish the third grade,” Abbott said in his prepared remarks. “To begin that process, my budget provides additional funding for schools that adopt high-quality Pre-K programs. My plan also provides Pre-K through third grade teachers with world-class literacy and math teacher training. Our children and their future have no time for delay. That’s why I declared early education as my first emergency legislative item as governor.”

He followed it up with a strong statement of support for last session’s House Bill 5, which diversified high school diploma plans. It was a crowd pleaser. The Greater Houston Partnership, that area’s largest business group, was a key player in the approval of last session’s major education legislation, although Texas still lags behind a number of states that have devoted significantly more resources to career-and-technology education.

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By Kimberly Reeves

February 27, 2015      4:34 PM

Smith: Salem's Senate

From the Left: Quorum Report’s liberal columnist Glenn W. Smith says Lt. Gov. Patrick could potentially cement an alliance between Gov. Abbott and Speaker Straus immediately with a fight over Abbott’s picks for the UT Board of Regents

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s Senate may not burn Gov. Greg Abbott’s three nominees to the University of Texas System board of regents at the stake. But after yesterday’s Senate Nominations Committee hearing, it is tempting to think that the nominees’ ankles sure must be feeling warm.

Abbott’s appointees –David Beck, Sara Martinez Tucker, and re-appointee Steve Hicks – are subject to Senate confirmation. It’s unimaginable that 1) Abbott could be so inept that he would lose such an early battle to Patrick; 2) Patrick could be so short-sighted that he would try to win it. Patrick faces two other centers of power: The governor’s office and Speaker Joe Straus’s House. Acting early to cement an Abbott-Straus alliance is not in Patrick’s interests, to say the least.

Still, if yesterday’s hearing is any evidence, Patrick does have a rather unicameral, neutered governor vision of Texas government. He’s even called for the creation of an Army of Christ to advance his personal Crusade against… well, I guess against anyone in Texas who disagrees with him. It is possible that Patrick truly believes himself anointed to lead an Army of Christ, although I think he’s more cynical panderer than a Christian warrior.  But I won’t question his faith. The route from sports bar owner to the Texas Senate might have passed near Damascus after all.

The complete column from Glenn W. Smith is in the R&D Department.

By Glenn W. Smith

February 27, 2015      4:12 PM

SB: Quorum Report welcomes Jackie Wang as contributor for session coverage

Talented writer, now at UT, becomes the newest member of the Texas Capitol press corps

The team here at Buzz Central is pleased to announce this Friday afternoon that Jackie Wang, an up-and-coming journalist at the University of Texas at Austin, will be joining the Quorum Report as a contributor during the 2015 legislative session.

Jackie has helped organize political forums involving candidates from both sides of the aisle, including Democratic former Houston Mayor Bill White and Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

Jackie writes for The Daily Texan and has been a contributor to the El Paso Times. She studies Journalism and Government at UT, where she also works at the on-campus research library and museum, the Harry Ransom Center.

More about Jackie is available on her website.

By Scott Braddock

February 27, 2015      2:05 PM

Buddy Barfield sentenced to more than 7 years for embezzling $1.8 million from Dewhurst

Barfield could have received nearly 30 years behind bars; had said he was “ready to take the full punishment."

February 26, 2015      4:50 PM

Former Ethics Commission Director Reisman becomes HHSC Ethics Officer

Janek says "I created this position to help increase our emphasis on ethical behavior"

The head of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, Kyle Janek, on Thursday announced he's tapped former Ethics Commission Director David Reisman to be the internal ethical watchdog for HHSC.

"I created this position to help increase our emphasis on ethical behavior," Janek said. "As public servants, we must hold ourselves and our programs to high standards,” he said. Janek said the agency’s leadership wants “strong policies” and a “good training program to make sure our employees know the rules, and a culture where people can elevate and discuss issues.”

The agency, of course, has been rocked by questions about a huge no-bid contract that went to an Austin tech company called 21CT. That company has ties to former HHSC general counsel Jack Stick, who quit his post after revelations about the contract.

After his stint as executive director of the Texas Ethics Commission, Reisman worked at the scandal-plagued Cancer Prevention and Research Institute where he created a monitoring system for $1 billion in grants.

February 25, 2015      5:41 PM

Transportation plan is moving to the Senate floor despite huge reservations from GOP senators

Sen. Fraser is worried about tying the hands of future legislatures; tells newly elected Sen. Huffines to slow down a bit: "You've only been here about a month."

Two conservative Republican senators on Wednesday voiced great concerns about the Texas Senate leadership’s transportation plan before voting in committee to send it to the full Senate for a vote as soon as next week.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has made it a priority to constitutionally dedicate roughly half the state’s motor vehicle sales tax collections to roads. He has promised Senate action on it as soon as possible.

But, both veteran Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, and newly elected Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, said they are very worried about several aspects of the plan put forward by Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville.

During the committee’s morning hearing, Sen. Fraser said he had a "huge reservation" about tying the hands of future legislatures by removing their discretion over more than $2 billion to $2.5 billion in collections that currently flow into general revenue. "I have a real concern about us doing something that obligates a future legislature," Fraser said.

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By Scott Braddock

February 25, 2015      5:40 PM

Press Releases: Transportation, Pre-K, windstorm insurance, tax relief, and more DHS positioning

February 25, 2015      4:16 PM

Rep. Farney backs vouchers in a limited fashion in speech before PTA

Before crowd that is anti-voucher, Former state board member says parents have right to options

Rep. Marsha Farney, a former State Board of Education member, offered her qualified support of vouchers in a speech at PTA Rally Day at the Capitol.

Farney, R-Georgetown, a former teacher and counselor, walks a fine line in politics. She considers herself a public school supporter, signed on to a bipartisan bill on pre-kindergarten with Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, and is serving her second term on the House Public Education Committee. But Farney also has clearly identified herself as a conservative, especially when it comes to schools considered to be failing.

For instance, Farney told the audience she proudly maintained her PTA membership, even as a grandmother.

“It’s so easy to criticize the public schools, but if you want to make a difference, the first place you go is to the PTA,” said Farney, drawing applause. “PTA absolutely is the life blood of what goes on in our schools.”

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February 25, 2015      3:54 PM

Bearse: Is Anyone Paying Attention

From the Right: Quorum Report’s conservative columnist Eric Bearse says President Obama is dangerously downplaying the threat from ISIS.

This is what happens when you elect an elitist college professor as the leader of the free world. Here we have a terrorist organization with a vision to return the world to the 7th Century, beheading reporters, filling mass graves with infidels, and vowing to rid the earth of Christians, Jews, and Muslims who don’t conform to their fanaticism, and our president denies both their religious roots and the severity of their threat.

They have declared a caliphate over land larger in size than the United Kingdom. The severity and religious nature of their threat is recognized by the leaders across the Muslim world, and yet the president lectures America about passing judgment when so much evil was done in the name of Christ some 800 years ago.

Worse than the president’s refusal to call the enemy by its name is his inability to articulate a plan to defeat them. But thank God for Undersecretary of State, Richard Engel, who is committed to winning the war against ISIS over twitter. He declared a few days ago, “these guys are not BuzzFeed; they’re not invincible on social media.”

The complete column from Eric Bearse can be found in the R&D Department.

By Eric Bearse

February 25, 2015      3:28 PM

Top Senate budget writer promises to address shortfalls in TRS Care as well

Leadership in both chambers now seem to be in full agreement about retired teachers’ health coverage

Finance Committee Chair Sen. Jane Nelson said:

“It is important to several members, myself included, that we devote resources to TRS-Care and our teachers. The Senate Finance Committee is working very hard on these and other budget issues."

February 25, 2015      11:27 AM

Updated: House Leadership commits to fully funding TRS Care

"This is going to give us two years...to help our teachers permanently."

Texas House leadership on Wednesday committed to fully funding health care for retired teachers across the state for the next two years. “The House appreciates retired educators,” Speaker Joe Straus tweeted shortly after Quorum Report broke the news.

House Appropriations Chairman Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, initially made the promise toward the end of the morning meeting of his powerful committee.

Later in the day, on the House floor, Otto talked with Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, about the fact that doing this is a commitment to teachers but is in no way a final solution to TRS Care’s financial situation. "This is going to give us two years...to sit down and work with you to come up with what we can look forward to to help our teachers permanently,” Keffer said.

On Tuesday, Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, included TRS Care’s needs as one of the reasons he cannot yet support a $4.6 billion tax cut proposal laid out by Senate leadership. He estimated about $800 million was needed to shore up the system.

The Texas Retired Teachers Association pegs the price tag at $762 million.

February 25, 2015      10:52 AM

Texas earns dubious distinction, 3rd worst state for taxes inflicted on average Americans

Current tax cut bidding war means nothing to most Texans

While the Senate and House are in a bidding war for the biggest headline number of tax cuts that most Texans will not feel, the online financial publication Marketwatch named Texas the third worst state for taxes inflicted on average Americans.

The analysis reports that the Lone Star State has the fifth highest effective tax rate on the state’s bottom 20% at 12.5% and the 8th lowest rate on the top 1% at an effective tax rate of 2.9%.

From the story, “…the state relies heavily on sales and excise taxes. These consumption taxes accounted for nearly 32% of the state’s revenue, the ninth highest nationwide in fiscal 2012. The state also doesn't provide low-income residents with any tax credits, which help offset sales, excise and property taxes in other states.”

The story can be found here.

Lest these numbers be dismissed as delirium from some left wing think tank, it should be noted that Marketwatch is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp and is a sister publication of the the Wall Street Journal and Barron’s

By Harvey Kronberg

February 25, 2015      10:41 AM

Senate Transportation recommends full Senate pass Nichols transportation plan

Floor vote on SB 5 and SJR 5 expected next week

February 25, 2015      9:18 AM

Key Democrat: Nearly a conflict of interest to hold off on funding of corruption watchdog

"Even under the most conservative leadership, i.e. Tom Craddick (as Speaker), we funded the public integrity unit.”

A key Texas House Democrat on Wednesday said it is “almost a conflict of interest” for lawmakers to make funding of the state’s corruption watchdog contingent on a potential restructuring of the Public Integrity Unit housed in the Travis County District Attorney’s Office.

The House base budget proposal funds the PIU to the level requested by Travis County prosecutors: about $6.6 million. But, as proposed, the money cannot flow to the agency unless changes are made through legislation to address the concerns of critics who say the office engages in “partisan witch hunts.”

House Appropriations Vice Chair Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, said during a committee hearing that in his quarter century as a lawmaker, he’s never seen an agency funded in this manner. Huge problems with the Juvenile Justice Department did not keep its funding from being made available in the budget while lawmakers eyed reforms, Turner noted.  

The rest of the story, subscribers only

By Scott Braddock

February 25, 2015      8:38 AM

Appropriations Chairman Otto says the House will fully fund TRS Care

The amount requested is $800 million. Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, said Wednesday "The House will fully fund TRS Care"

February 24, 2015      5:18 PM

Updated: Senate leadership proposes $4.6 billion in tax cuts

Lt. Gov. Patrick says Gov. Abbott fully supports tax cut plan: “We're so close shoulder-to-shoulder you couldn't put a piece of paper between us." Abbott hasn't seen the plan.

Note: As of 5:46pm, this story has been updated throughout, including Gov. Abbott's reaction to the plan – SB

One day after Texas House leaders promised to “do better than” the $4 billion in tax cuts originally promised this session by the Senate, the Republican leadership of the upper chamber on Tuesday unveiled a package of property and business tax cuts totaling $4.6 billion. Calling it the "next step," Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told reporters at a Capitol news conference that it’s possible even more tax relief could be in the offing as the legislative process moves forward.

Finance Committee Chair Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, filed SB 1 and SB 7, which together provide for “approximately $4 billion in tax relief during the 2016-2017 biennium."

The rest of the story, subscribers only

By Scott Braddock

February 24, 2015      5:06 PM

Press Releases: Tax cut plan reactions, appointments, same-sex benefits, DHS funding and more

February 24, 2015      1:59 PM

Bill to allow Tesla to sell direct to Texas consumers referred to Senate Natural Resources & Economic Development

February 24, 2015      12:21 PM

An emotional Sen. Leticia Van de Putte bids the Senate farewell

"It's been an honor to serve with you, alongside you, for the people of this great state."

February 24, 2015      12:11 PM

Key Senate Republican raises serious concerns about Senate tax cut proposal

State’s needs “have to be addressed with permanent long term solutions before I can support tax cuts,” Eltife said.

Saying that it is time to “stop putting band aids” on the state’s needs like transportation and employee retirements, Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, on Tuesday said he could not support $4.6 billion in tax cuts laid out by Texas Senate leadership earlier in the day.

Eltife does, however, support the bill by Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, to increase the franchise tax exemption for businesses from $1 million to $4 million.

But when it comes to SB 1 and SB 7: "I have said all along we have got to meet the needs of the state before we cut taxes," Eltife told Quorum Report.

The rest of the story, subscribers only

By Scott Braddock

February 23, 2015      5:42 PM

Updated: Texas House leaders say tax cuts could top $4 billion

“We really believe that we ought to be able to do more than $4 billion in tax cuts here in the House,” Bonnen said. “We don’t have a number at this point. We just know that we can do better than that.”

Peggy Fikac at the Express-News gets the interview with House Ways and Means Chairman Dennis Bonnen in which he said “we can do better” than the Texas Senate’s proposed tax cuts.

Just after 7pm, the House Republican Caucus issued the following statement:

“The Texas House made it very clear from the start of this session that major tax relief will be a cornerstone of the state budget. Today the statements by Chairman Dennis Bonnen and Speaker Joe Straus echo the commitment that Republicans have made to return a sizeable portion of our unappropriated revenue to its rightful owners, the taxpayers of this state.  The Texas Model is built upon the principle that tax relief and fiscally responsible spending plans will generate economic prosperity, and Republicans in the Texas House of Representatives are fully committed to this vision.”

February 23, 2015      5:23 PM

Greenfield: Money, Money, Money, it just keeps rollin in

Number cruncher extraordinaire Dr. Stuart Greenfield says Comptroller Hegar’s estimate might not be optimistic enough. Among other things, he notes oil production for the fiscal year will exceed one billion barrels. That hasn’t happened since 1978.

Newly elected Comptroller Glenn Hegar’s Biennial Revenue Estimate – the BRE – has been called quite optimistic by many commentators, especially given the dramatic decline in the price of crude oil. But the release of revenue collections for January indicates his estimate might not be optimistic enough.

Chart 1 shows the year-to-date (YTD) growth rate in tax collections for FY10 through FY15, and both the estimated growth rates from the Certified Revenue Estimate (1.8 percent) released in December 2013, and the current BRE (1.6 percent).  Check out the fact that YTD growth in tax collections (6.8 percent) is 325 percent greater than the estimated rate (1.6 percent).  The YTD growth rate in total state revenue (8.1 percent) is 80 percent greater than the estimated growth rate (4.6 percent).  

The latest estimate of state tax collections are projected to grow by 1.6 percent in FY15 and then increase by 2.4 percent in fiscal 2016 (FY16) and 5.6 percent in FY17. Total net revenue is expected to increase by 4.6 percent in FY15, increase by 1.7 percent in FY16 and then decrease by 1.9 percent in FY17.  

The complete column from Dr. Stuart Greenfield, Ph.D., can be found in the R&D Department.

By Stuart Greenfield, Ph.D.

February 23, 2015      4:58 PM

Press Releases: Health and Human services, graduation rates, rural health care and more amnesty outrage

February 23, 2015      4:08 PM

Reckoning Day: Two giants compete for big Texas testing contract

ETS and Pearson go head to head this week on four-year contract

Two coalitions, headed by the nation’s biggest testing giants, will go head to head this week in oral presentations to compete for one of Texas’ largest contracts.

Texas passed its first bill for standardized tests at grade level intervals in 1979. The requirement for the passage of an exit-level test to graduate high school was added in 1984. Through it all, Pearson NCS has carried the contract for every generation of standardized testing the state: TABS, TEAMS, TAAS, TAKS and now STAAR.  

The Texas Education Agency declined to comment on the oral presentations, but the agency’s own timeline indicates oral presentations, before a team of evaluators, must be completed by Feb. 27.

Commissioner Michael Williams is expected to pick one of two final teams by March 18. While the last contract, which went to Pearson, was five years and valued at $462 million, this contract is four years and may be substantially less as lawmakers have begun to cut and substitute tests.

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By Kimberly Reeves

February 23, 2015      2:06 PM

Vagueness of Texas Senate border security plan comes under fire

There is a potential budget rider that may help Texas set its own definition of a secure border. “It might help for us to have one,” Sen. Watson said.

Democrats and one Republican pressed GOP leaders on Monday about the vagueness of how the Texas Senate’s huge proposed increase in border security funding would be spent. Finance Committee Chair Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, repeatedly answered their questions by saying she wants to ensure there are adequate resources for the border while also giving lawmakers a chance to decide on the specifics.

At one point during the Finance Committee’s meeting, Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, allowed his frustration to boil over. Eltife angrily said he didn’t care how popular border security is with voters, the point that seems to be missing is there are no real metrics to determine success.

“Christmas polls well in my house,” Eltife said, but “every dollar needs to be accounted for.”  When he made that statement, Eltife had just listened to testimony indicating that the state has no way – across agencies – to assess whether border security efforts are successful.

“My goal in filing the base bill was to increase funding significantly," Sen. Nelson said. "And to cover certain areas but to leave it up to the committee's discretion how we want to do that.”

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By Scott Braddock