Vol 30, Issue 1 Print Issue

The 83rd Comes to Town

Lawmakers came to Austin, took their oaths, started organizing and setting the table for the 83rd time, facing legal and fiscal uncertainties in court and hearing from leaders who want to focus on water, transportation and other infrastructure.

The Week in the Rearview Mirror

State Rep. Allan Ritter, R-Nederland, filed two bills Thursday that would allocate a one-time, $2 billion sum from Texas' Rainy Day Fund to create a revolving fund for water-supply projects. Ritter, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, is a key figure on water issues in the drought-ravaged state. House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, has said he is looking to Ritter's leadership on water. Of the several water bills and proposals from state leaders, Ritter's proposed sum is the largest; he wants to get initial money from the state's Rainy Day Fund.

Rice farmers could find themselves on the losing end of a water plan drafted by the Lower Colorado River Authority unless the state sees significant rainfall in the next few weeks. The Central Texas water authority is trying to preserve water in the Highland Lakes for use in the area, and is declining to release it downstream for the rice farmers' use unless lake levels rise by March 1. The same rice farmers did not get any Highland Lakes water last year and say that if they don’t get any this year, it will be economically devastating.

National debate over gun control has led officials in Central Texas to discuss banning gun shows that have been regularly held at the Travis County Expo Center. Opponents of the shows say customers can purchase guns from private citizens rather than dealers, who are required to run background checks. Both Travis County and the city of Austin are considering some sort of regulation of the shows, but are moving cautiously through the legalities of establishing new rules. County commissioners postponed a scheduled vote after meeting with county attorneys to discuss the legality of a ban. 

A new Super PAC formed by former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband Mark Kelley received a $1 million donation from Houston attorneys and major Democratic donors Steve and Amber Mostyn. Steve Mostyn is listed as treasurer of the association, Americans for Responsible Solutions. He is advocating for a common-sense discussion of gun control and a counterbalance to the National Rifle Association. He also announced that the group would have a nonprofit component that would wage public education campaigns. 

The School Land Board voted to release $300 million to the state's Available School Fund. Real estate investments earn money for the state through the General Land Office, and a constitutional amendment approved by voters last November allows the School Land Board discretion to disburse the proceeds directly into the fund. The board refused to distribute any of the funds in July, when its three members insisted that it wanted to preserve the funds for future investments. Under pressure from legislators, the board voted this week to release the money in two installments: $150 million in February and the remaining $150 million in June. Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson continued to object to releasing the money and voted against the measure.

As the state continued its defense of its public school funding during the state school finance trial, a Texas Education Agency official was forced to admit that she made calculation errors in a report relied on to provide information comparing districts. Lisa Dawn-Fisher, the Texas Education Agency’s associate commissioner of finance, revealed the errors during testimony, prompting Judge John Dietz to order the report to be redone. 

Google has announced that it’s investing in a West Texas wind farm. The $200 million investment will go to the Spinning Spur Wind Farm, a 28,000-acre development northwest of Vega. EDF Renewable Energy, the owner of the facility, expressed enthusiasm over partnering with a private company rather than a financial institution. In its statement, Google also expressed its hopes for making what it called a smart investment.

A Texas company that has been collaborating with scientists to develop a technique for preserving bread has applied for a patent on the technology and is publicizing the benefits in an effort to line up investors. MicroZap claims that its process of microwaving bread allows it to remain mold-free for up to 60 days. 

Political People and their Moves

Texas senators elected Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, to serve as president pro tempore of the 83rd legislative session.

Emily Fourmy Cutrer was appointed president of Texas A&M University-Texarkana by the board of regents and starts work next week. She was most recently provost and vice president for academic affairs at California State University San Marcos, and worked at Arizona State and the University of Texas-Austin before that. 

Former Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, has officially hung out a lobby shingle; he’ll office with Adams & Zottarelli, and brought former general counsel Carsi Mitzner along to the new firm.

Chloe Lieberknecht joined The Nature Conservancy as director of government relations after 11 years at the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission.

James Bernsen, who did communications on Ted Cruz’s campaign for U.S. Senate, joins Crosswind Media & Public Relations in Austin.

Former House staffer Stephen Raines is now the government affairs manager for Preferred Care Partners Management Group, a nursing home operator.

Brendan Steinhauser joins the Texas Public Policy Foundation as the director of communications for its Right on Crime project. He was most recently at FreedomWorks. 

Gov. Rick Perry has appointed Ernest “Ernie” Kuehne Jr. of Dallas to the University of North Texas System Board of Regents. Kuehne is an attorney and president and board chairman of Kuehne Oil Company.

Perry also appointed Bradley S. Hart of Humble as judge of the 230th Judicial District Court in Harris County.   Hart is an assistant district attorney for Harris County.

Perry reappointed Alan Johnson of Harlingen, president and CEO of Valley Baptist Service Corp., to the Veterans’ Land Board.

The governor appointed veterinarian Kenneth Motl of Port Lavaca to the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority’s board of directors.

He named banker Henry Borbolla III of Fort Worth and Tom Fordyce of Huntsville, chairman of the Huntsville Economic Development Council, to the Trinity River Authority board.

Perry appointed Randy Watson of Burleson to the state’s Public Safety Commission, which oversees the state police. Watson is the chairman and CEO of Justin Brands.

Press Corps moves: Texas Monthly adds Brian Sweany and Erica Grieder to its political staff, joining the venerable Paul Burka, who’ll continue his Burkablog... And radio newsman Scott Braddock joins the staff of the Quorum Report for the legislative session, officially starting next month.