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Day: May 15, 2019

This Texas bill that opponents say could lead to voter suppression has lost a key bipartisan provision

Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Texas Republicans and advocacy groups typically on opposite sides of voting rights fights went into 2019 with one bit of electoral common ground — voting machines with paper trails.

But with less than two weeks remaining in the legislative session, the main legislative vehicle for a statewide move toward that kind of election equipment appears to be gutted. Left in its place is a controversial, wide-ranging election bill that’s been offered as an election security measure but has instead been catalogued by opponents as a pathway to state-sanctioned voter suppression that could go as far as criminalizing honest mistakes while voting.

Filed in early March, Senate Bill 9 by Republican state Sen. Bryan Hughes emerged as a priority for Senate leadership and first appeared to seize on bipartisan support for modernizing outdated voting equipment and enhancing election security.

In opening his pitch on the Senate floor in mid-April, Hughes said the “heart of SB 9” was a provision requiring counties to use voting machines by the 2024 general election that provide an auditable paper trail that can be verified by voters.

“It’s our responsibility on behalf of the people of Texas to make sure each county is conducting elections in the most secure way possible or practicable and that voters can truly trust the results,” Hughes said. “This shift to systems with a paper component, with those audits that will follow, will give certainty to every Texan that their vote will be counted fairly.”

The Senate signed off on the measure on a party-line vote. But when it made it to the House Elections Committee on Wednesday, state Rep. Stephanie Klick, a Fort Worth Republican and the panel’s chair, offered a substitute version of the bill that stripped the voting machine language altogether.

The most recent version of SB 9 still makes more than two dozen changes to election practices that proponents have generally described as election security and integrity measures meant to zero in on wrongdoers, not legitimate voters. Hughes previously chalked the other changes up to an attempt to address problems he had heard about from election administrators, district attorneys and the attorney general’s office.

But those changes — many of which election administrators actually oppose — are extensive and significant. To name a few:

The legislation would make it a state jail felony for Texans to vote when they’re ineligible even if they did so unknowingly, elevating that offense from a Class B misdemeanor to include possible jail time and a fine of up to $10,000. Although federal law generally allows a voter to receive assistance in filling out a ballot by the person of their choice, SB 9 would authorize partisan poll watchers or election officials to be present at a voting station if a voter is getting help from someone who isn’t a relative. Those individuals would then be allowed to examine the voter’s ballot before it’s submitted to determine whether it was filled out “in accordance with the voter’s wishes.”

SB 9 would require people who drive at least three voters to whom they’re not related to the polls at the same time for curbside voting — popular among the elderly and people with disabilities — to sign a sworn statement affirming those voters are physically unable to enter the polling place without personal assistance or health risks.

And the legislation grants the state attorney general direct access to the voter rolls and essentially allows Texas to participate in a controversial, Kansas-based voter verification program that’s intended to allow states to compare voter rolls to find people registered in multiple states. It has proved to be ineffective, inaccurate and mired in cybersecurity weaknesses.

Laying out SB 9 before a packed committee room Wednesday, Klick told her colleagues the intent of her version of the bill was “neither voter suppression nor to enable voter fraud.”

“Ultimately, the intent of SB 9 is to strengthen election integrity and make sure all votes cast are legitimate votes and no legal voter is inhibited from casting their ballot,” Klick said.

But most of the individuals who testified before the committee countered that.

The Texas Association of Election Administrators re-upped its opposition to the legislation, with its president, Chris Davis, speaking against what he called the “criminalization of poll workers” and other “bad policy” in the bill. He focused on the provisions allowing poll watchers to record ballot counting where voting is happening, the curbside voting provision and new language added by Klick that regulates where counties can place voting centers if they allow what’s known as countywide voting, which allows a voter to cast votes at any polling place and not just the one in their voting precinct.

“As the very people that will be tasked to carry out this bill’s measures and quite frankly administer your next elections, these are our problems with it,” said Davis, the election administrator in Williamson County.

A volunteer deputy registrar from the Rio Grande Valley told lawmakers she was wary of a provision of the bill that makes it a state felony to provide false information on a voter registration application because she had registered more than 3,000 voters, many of whom had inadvertently made mistakes when filling out their applications.

Several individuals testified against the bill, citing concerns about the chilling effect it could have on voters with disabilities. Jeff Miller of Disability Rights Texas explained there was no safe harbor for those assisting people with disabilities from a provision that would make it a state jail felony to unlawfully assist a voter by suggesting even with a gesture how a person should vote.

Miller said the harsher penalty could make it tougher to find people willing to assist voters if they fear they could be charged with a crime while helping voters with intellectual or developmental disabilities through gestures or questions.

Among the several individuals with disabilities at the hearing, Alex Birnel with MOVE Texas was more direct about the barriers the bill would create for voters with disabilities through additional requirements on those assisting them.

“As someone who uses crutches, I think I know a crutch when I see it,” Birnel said.

They were joined in their opposition by the League of Women Voters, which has previously said any good in the bill is outweighed by problematic provisions; progressive groups worried that voters would be thrown in jail for making honest mistakes; and organizations with histories of fighting unlawful voting restrictions, including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Texas Civil Rights Project.

Although a few people testified in support of SB 9, several of them indicated they had concerns with Klick’s revision to the bill.

The clock is ticking on the legislation, but the hostility building toward the bill could reach a fever pitch in the waning days of session.

SB 9 faces several procedural hurdles to make it out of the House. First, the House Elections Committee must approve it ahead of key weekend deadlines for it to get on the full chamber’s agenda. Though the committee was initially planning to vote the bill on Wednesday, it left it pending when it adjourned early Thursday morning. The committee is expected to take it up at another meeting scheduled for later Thursday morning. Then, it will need to get on a House calendar and be approved by the full House before a midnight deadline Tuesday.

That rush was apparent Wednesday when Klick took the unusual step of closing registration for members of the public wishing to testify half an hour into the 8 a.m. hearing. A motion to reopen registration by state Rep. Art Fierro, D-El Paso, was not recognized. A total of 256 people registered a position on the bill, with 233 declaring their opposition to the bill. And more than 100 signed up to testify before the 8:30 a.m. deadline.

The episode served as a potential preview of the simmering partisan tensions the bill could stoke in a Legislature historically roiled by electoral issues. The Texas Democratic Party, which opposed the legislation, pounced on the decision to cut off witness registration, claiming Republicans “intend to silence the voices of Texans” who want to speak against the bill. Soon after the committee took a break so members could join their colleagues for the House’s regular agenda, a coalition of 15 progressive and voting rights groups sent a letter to the committee imploring it to reopen registration.

The committee returned to a standing-room-only hearing Wednesday night almost 10 hours later and did not reopen registration before restarting four more hours of public testimony.

Up first were Kathryn Dodi and Beverly Black, who asked the committee to vote down the bill because of the detrimental impact it could have on voters with intellectual disabilities like them. They’ve both asked for assistance to cast their ballots and feared the provision of the bill that enhances penalties related to unlawful assistance, even though they’ve never been influenced by the people assisting them.

“Having someone with me to support me is my right. They’re only there to make sure I understand what I’m reading,” Doty said. “Please don’t take away people with disabilities’ right to vote with support. It makes us feel good, like we matter.”

Testifying with an assistant who supported her by prodding her with questions, Black explained she knows who is running and their political positions because she follows the news on television but requires assistance to cast a ballot because she cannot read.

“Don’t cut the vote off — please don’t,” Black said. “I need someone to help me.”

This story originally appeared on the Texas Tribune. To read this article in its original format, click here.

Texas Senate passes bill to kill program that critics say can trap poor people in a cycle of debt

The controversial Driver Responsibility Program causes some people to have their driver’s licenses suspended. Cooper Neill for The Texas Tribune

Texas may finally kill the widely unpopular Driver Responsibility Program, which critics say leaves low-income drivers with costly bills and without their licenses. A bill to end the program soared unanimously through the Senate on Wednesday — and if the House concurs with the upper chamber’s minor changes, then the bill will head to the governor’s desk.

As of January 2018, 1.4 million Texas drivers — nearly 10% of the state’s drivers that year — had suspended licenses for not paying the program’s surcharges. Those yearly fees, which must be paid in addition to a ticket, range from $100 for a few traffic infractions to $2,000 for driving while intoxicated. Under the bill, any pending surcharges under the Driver Responsibility Act would go away.

“Everybody said it would not go anywhere, but it finally has,” said state Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, during the Senate floor debate Wednesday.

The Driver Responsibility Program was created to help fund the state’s trauma care system, an expensive regional network of emergency medical and hospital services. Killing the program has been difficult because legislators have struggled to find an alternative funding source for trauma care. But under this new proposal, hospitals say they would get a more sustainable source of funding — and extra money, to boot.

In lieu of additional yearly charges for traffic violations, House Bill 2048 would add $2 to yearly automobile insurance fees and increase state traffic fines — a portion of the fine paid for any traffic violation — from $30 to $50.

It would also add additional fines of up to $6,000 for those who drive while intoxicated. Criminal justice advocates worried that this would be a tough fee for low-income drivers to pay, so state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, one of the bill’s co-authors, added a provision that would allow judges to waive or reduce fees for low-income drivers.

A proposal to kill the Driver Responsibility Program died in the Senate two years ago after it cleared the House floor and passed out of a Senate committee. HB 2048 has garnered support from hospitals, trauma care facilities and criminal justice reform advocates. But insurance companies worry that the extra $2 bump is regressive, which means the fees take up a larger portion of poor people’s income than rich people’s. However, supporters of the bill say the extra increase is a small price to pay to relieve the financial burden imposed on low-income drivers and generate a sustainable revenue source for trauma centers.

After the bill’s successful passage through the Senate, advocates across the state and nation — like the Texas Fair Defense Project, the Texas Hospital Association and a staffer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas — tweeted their praise for what’s been termed a “HUGE” victory.

“Texas suspends more driver’s licenses than any other state by far, and this is by far the biggest program,” said Emily Gerrick, a senior staff attorney with the Texas Fair Defense Project. “This many sessions of work that are finally coming to fruition.”

Disclosure: The Texas Hospital Association has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This story originally appeared on the Texas Tribune. To read this article in its original format, click here.

Joaquin Castro’s out and MJ Hegar’s in, but other Democrats still eyeing John Cornyn’s seat

When U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro announced earlier this month that he would not run for U.S. Senate in 2020, the San Antonio Democrat cleared up one major question hanging over his party’s primary. But the field is anything but settled.

Two weeks later, the clock is ticking for Democrats to mount serious campaigns to unseat U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, an uphill battle even with Texas’ changing political landscape. Arguably the most prominent Democrat already running, MJ Hegar, announced her campaign three weeks ago but has been — on the surface, at least  off to a slow start that has done little to dissuade at least three other Democrats from considering runs.

Among them is Amanda Edwards, an at-large Houston City Council member who has been mulling a campaign since at least early March and appears to be moving closer to running. She has been in conversations with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and is heading to Washington, D.C., next week to continue those discussions, according to a source familiar with her plans.

Texas farmers could begin growing hemp under legislation gaining steam in both chambers

Juan Figueroa/The Texas Tribune

Wednesday at the Texas Capitol was hump day — or hemp day, state Sen. Charles Perry joked before the upper chamber unanimously approved a bill that would legalize the farming of industrial hemp in Texas.

After a relatively short, amiable debate, the Texas Senate approved House Bill 1325 by state Rep. Tracy King. The bill would legalize hemp and hemp-derived extracts like CBD oil as long as they contain no more than 0.3% of tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive element in marijuana known as THC. While hemp-based products that contain no THC — like clothing and twine, protein powder, moisturizers and essential oils — are legal in the state, the plant cannot be legally grown here and Texas businesses often have to source it from other states.

If the bill becomes law, marijuana would still be illegal.

Still, some lawmakers sought to clarify Wednesday that the bill would not open the door to recreational marijuana use and ensure the bill had provisions in place to reprimand farmers found to be growing hemp that contained more than 0.3% THC — which Perry called a “hot crop.”

“Can this stuff be smoked?” asked state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen.

“No, sir,” Perry responded. “I guess you could theoretically smoke it, you’d get no effect from it, and the bill specifically prohibits manufacturing for the purpose of smoking.”

“Nowadays people can smoke anything,” Hinojosa said before completing his line of questioning.

Perry, the Senate sponsor of the bill, introduced a reworked version of the legislation which requires the state to adopt policies for the random testing of CBD oil sold in various retail stores and requires retail stores wanting to sell CBD oil or CBD products to get a permit. It also creates fines for people growing crops containing more than 0.3% THC.

Under Perry’s version of the bill, law enforcement who see people transporting hemp in the state are given broad power to seize anything they believe could be marijuana or another controlled substance — regardless of whether it is. Those officers could then impound the hemp, along with the controlled or illegal substance. Those provisions where not in the lower chamber’s version of the bill.

The House and Senate will likely have to negotiate their significant differences over the bill in a conference committee before it can be signed into law.

“Hemp has thousands of uses and can be found in multiple commodities like seeds, oils, fibers and clothing,” Perry told other senators. “Hemp products can already be found in retail and various other grocery chains.”

More than 40 other states have legalized hemp production, but bills to do so in Texas have failed in past legislative sessions. After Congress passed the Farm Bill last year, legalizing hemp that contains no more than 0.3% THC at the federal level, states have been eyeing ways to create their own hemp programs so they won’t be under federal guidelines.

If King’s bill becomes law, the Texas Department of Agriculture will enact regulations to govern a hemp program, which would need to be submitted to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for approval. Those regulations would include a licensing process for manufacturers and farmers wanting to grow the plant.

“Previously dormant pilot programs are all now activating after the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill,” said Lisa Pittman, a cannabis law attorney. “I personally believe Texas will become a leader in this arena since its already a big agriculture producing state to begin with. Farmers have been looking to this bill as a lifeline to save their family farms.”

This story originally appeared on the Texas Tribune. To read this article in its original format, click here.

Rigged: How Corporate Tax Cuts Increase Property Taxes for Homeowners

Over the past 10 years, Texas legislators have voted to cut taxes for corporations while freezing education spending, passing the buck to Texas homeowners.

Toxic Brew of Corporate Tax Cuts, Education Cuts, and Skyrocketing Property Taxes

In 2005, the Texas Supreme Court found the Texas school finance system unconstitutional. Legislators were called back for a special session in 2006 to fix it. Part of their settlement included revising a corporate tax, known as the franchise tax, to be another source of revenue for public education.

These changes went into effect two years later in 2008. The tax rate for most corporations was 1 percent, and for retailers and wholesalers, it was 0.5 percent. In the first year, “the franchise tax produced nearly $4.5 billion, 41.6 percent more than 2007 collections under the old formulation.” Of that, $1.6 billion went to public schools.

In 2009, following increased exemptions, the franchise tax brought in under $4 billion and its share of total taxes collected began to drop.

In 2011, the Legislature cut the public education budget by $5.4 billion. This funding has never been fully restored.

According to the Texas Comptroller, per pupil funding from the state in constant dollars, which accounts for inflation and enrollment growth (over 400,000 during the same time), is less now than it was prior to the 2011 cuts. The state government spent $4,303.20 per student in 2011. By 2018, it fell to $3,488.40.

In 2013 and 2015, the Texas Legislature voted to reduce the franchise tax rates by 2.5 percent and 25 percent, respectively. The tax rate for most corporations in 2016 was 0.75, and for retailers and wholesalers, it was 0.375 percent. Following the 2015 tax cut, the state collected over $1 billion less in revenue every year, which meant less money for public schools.

In 2018, public schools schools only received $856 million from the franchise tax, an estimated $1.2 billion less than what corporations would otherwise have contributed prior to the 2015 rate cut, according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities.

All the while property taxes on homeowners have increased. After the 2006 tax cuts, the total school property taxes collected was $18.9 billion. Eleven years later, school property tax collections soared to a staggering $32.1 billion.

Corporations Exploit Legal System to Pay Less in Property Taxes for Public Schools

Even worse, big corporations take advantage of a rigged tax system to lower their property tax bills.

The system includes an appeal process, called equity appeals, where corporations can pay expensive property tax lawyers to appeal the appraisals on their corporate properties, including skyscrapers, while the average Texas homeowner who cannot afford to hire an appeal experts is left paying a higher bill.

According to the San Antonio Express-News, this appeals process shifts the burden of property taxes from corporations onto homeowners to the tune of $44 billion a year of property value and $1 billion a year in collected school property taxes in just the state’s largest five counties.

Two attempts this session to remedy this unequal process and unfair burden on residential homeowners have not received committee hearings. HB 1816 in the House is now dead as the end-of-session deadline has passed. SB 853 still has a small chance to move in the Senate with less than two weeks left in the session.

Failed Sales Tax Increase Proposal in 2019

In 2019, the Texas Legislature debated a proposal by the “Big Three,” the Gov., Lt. Gov. and House Speaker, to increase the sales tax by one cent to make up for the lost revenue from property tax relief for public education.

This would have tied Texas with California for the highest sales tax in America.

What the leadership in Austin are not admitting is the sales tax increase will only benefit a wealthy few at the cost of an increased tax burden on the everyday Texan homeowner. The Legislative Budget Board said as much:

Facing bipartisan opposition, the proposal died in the House with the author of the legislation motioning to postpone floor debate on his bill until next session.

Despite taxpayer outrage, Texas lawmakers have failed to overhaul the state’s outdated school finance formula and bring meaningful property tax relief. Will they meet the challenge in the last two weeks of session or will they bring more bad ideas for the average Texan to the table?

Watch Senate Bill 9 hearing in Texas House panel over voting rights and access

Rachel Zein for The Texas Tribune

A Texas House panel is taking up legislation Wednesday that would make it a felony for Texans who vote when they’re ineligible — even if they did so unknowingly.

Senate Bill 9, a controversial and wide-ranging election measure, would increase the penalty for such an offense from a Class B misdemeanor to a state jail felony, with punishment that could include up to a two-year jail term and a fine of up to $10,000. The state Senate passed the measure April 15.

The legislation would also allow an election officer or poll watcher to be present at a voting station when a voter is getting help from someone who isn’t a relative. The officer or poll watcher would be allowed to examine the voter’s ballot before it is submitted “to determine whether it is prepared in accordance with the voter’s wishes.”

The House Elections Committee’s Wednesday hearing is likely to include public testimony and debate over possible revisions to the bill.

Proponents say the legislation would strengthen the integrity of Texas’ elections. But critics say the legislation would only make voting more difficult and scary for voters.

You can watch a livestream of the hearing — which is scheduled to start at 8 a.m. Wednesday — below.

This story originally appeared on the Texas Tribune. To read this article in its original format, click here.

Texas high-speed rail project dodges bullet after budget rider dies

Norihiro Kataoka

The Dallas-Houston high-speed rail project dodged a bullet this week, when lawmakers hashing out the state budget released their decision to strike a provision that could have delayed the project.

A committee of Texas House and Senate members ditched language that would have prevented the Texas Department of Transportation from coordinating with a high-speed rail company so its project could cross state highways until a court definitively affirms the company’s ability to use eminent domain with an unappealable ruling. That provision, called a budget “rider,” could have delayed the project for several years, according to Patrick McShan, an attorney for an opposition group and more than 100 landowners along the train’s planned route.

Project developer Texas Central Partners LLC lauded the legislative move. The company has been battling legislative efforts that they say could cripple the project and impose unfair requirements that other similar projects, like natural gas pipelines, don’t have.

“Today’s action ensures the project continues to be treated like any other major infrastructure project in Texas,” said Holly Reed, Texas Central’s managing director of external affairs.

But project opponents say several bills targeting the project would provide “common sense” regulations to protect private property owners in the rail’s path. They chalked up this week’s decision to the lobbying power of Texas Central.

“It just goes to show you that high-paid lobbyists are more effective than the truth when it comes to Austin,” said Kyle Workman, president and chairman of grassroots opposition group Texans Against High-Speed Rail.

Yet that was not what led to the language’s removal, according to one legislator.

The Senate added the rider in its proposed 2020-21 budget, but the House’s spending plan didn’t include the language. So that was one of several differences that a conference committee of members from both chambers are hashing out behind closed doors. Once that process is done, both chambers will vote on the revised budget.

Houston Democrat state Rep. Armando Walle, one of the members of the conference committee, said the rider was removed out of fear that a lawmaker could argue the language changes general law, something that House rules don’t allow the budget to do. If such an argument were successful, that could have threatened the entire spending plan.

“In order to not have the whole appropriations bill go down, I think that was the safest way to address the issue,” Walle said.

While project supporters and opponents say that the legislative fight isn’t over just yet, it’s unclear if any other anti-rail bills will gain traction before the legislative session ends in less than two weeks. Project opponents were pushing for so many bills this session that an entire subcommittee was created to tackle the subject.

However, their efforts in the House look bleak: a number of House bills that could have delayed or crippled the project failed to reach the chamber floor last week before a key deadline. Two anti-rail measures in the Senate have received hearings, but they still haven’t budged from the Senate Transportation Committee. The Senate budget provision has advanced the furthest of any anti-rail measure this year.

Workman said his grassroots group plans to continue looking for every opportunity to advance its aims. He remained tight-lipped about any possible amendments they might pursue, but he said his group has already successfully raised more awareness for their cause this session. Plus, he said there’s still legal ambiguity about Texas Central’s claims that the company can use eminent domain, which would allow it to seize land it needs and forcibly buy it from owners who don’t want to sell.

Texas law allows railroads to use eminent domain. Opponents argue that the company doesn’t count as a railroad because it’s not operating any trains — and a Leon County Court upheld that viewpoint in February.

“They still have a problem. They’re not a railroad,” said Workman. “We don’t have to pass anything — the landscape is still in our favor.”

But Texas Central says it is a railroad, and Reed touted a Harris County court decision that sided with the company, saying the company feels confident that they will win an appeals case.

“To date, the legislature has not passed any harmful legislation to the project,” she said. “It’s a recognition that the majority of the state sees the project as positive and having positive impacts on the overall state.”

Disclosure: Texas Central has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This story originally appeared on the Texas Tribune. To read this article in its original format, click here.

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