Vol 30, Issue 14 Print Issue

January 14th, 2013: Senator John Whitmire D-Houston smiles as fellow Senators praise his 40 years in the Texas legislature
January 14th, 2013: Senator John Whitmire D-Houston smiles as fellow Senators praise his 40 years in the Texas legislature

A Rumor of Peace

It’s a little funny to talk to people at the Capitol who have been steeled in a culture of political warfare about the outbreak of peace. Many differences remain, but those blood veins that were sticking out on everyone’s foreheads and necks in 2009 and 2011 have smoothed out. For the moment, Texas civics is downright civil.

The Week in the Rearview Mirror

Lawmakers reacted positively to the University of Texas System regents' unanimous vote to turn over requested documents to legislators, but they also indicated that tensions between the system and the Capitol have not been laid to rest. Board Chairman Gene Powell had previously asked Attorney General Greg Abbott for an opinion on whether the board had to turn over all records lawmakers had requested, a move that angered many elected officials. The regents also voted to ask the attorney general to conduct a review of a controversial and now-defunct forgivable loan program run by the University of Texas Law School Foundation.

An ambitious plan to spend $6 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund while also setting the stage for a serious debate in the remaining weeks of the session on whether to tap the fund for public education was uncorked this week by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands. His proposal for a constitutional amendment would ask Texas voters to approve spending $3.5 billion on transportation projects and $2.5 billion on water projects. The comptroller’s office has projected the fund, fed largely by taxes on the state’s oil and gas production, will grow to $11.8 billion by the end of the next biennium. By putting it in a constitutional amendment, the proposal would leave to voters whether they want to allow state spending to exceed a cap on growth.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, delivered an impassioned plea in support of what threatens to become a beleaguered tax credit scholarship plan during a hearing on his legislation. "We are great enough in this state to do this thing if we just knock down some barriers of people who are against opportunity and competition because they always have been," he said. Currently, those barriers likely include the Texas House, where lawmakers recently made their opposition to the issue clear when they overwhelmingly passed an amendment to the state budget aimed at banning private school vouchers — which nine out of 10 members of the lower chamber's education committee voted for — and possibly members of Patrick's own party in the Senate.

Doubling down on their vows to focus on border security before considering immigration reform, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, filed legislation  that will further scrutinize how well the federal government protects the U.S.-Mexico border. They talked about the need for more drones and other technology to help secure the border, and said strict deadlines should be in place for the Department of Homeland Security to reach such goals.

Texans who apply for unemployment benefits could be subject to drug testing under a measure the Senate approved unanimously. Senate Bill 21 would require applicants for unemployment benefits to take a drug test if their responses to a screening questionnaire raise red flags that indicate drug use.

Political People and their Moves

Gov. Rick Perry appointed Erleigh Norville Wiley of Forney as Kaufman County district attorney, replacing Republican Mike McLelland, who was killed in his own home last month. Wiley is judge of the Kaufman County Court-at-Law; she is a former supervising attorney with the Dallas County district attorney. 

Toni Anne Dashiell was elected national GOP committeewoman from Texas. She will serve the remainder of the late Borah Van Dormolen’s term. Dashiell is a former president of the Texas Federation of Republican Women and the current chair of the Kendall County GOP.

Indicted: John Higgins, aide to Rep. Tim Kleinschmidt, R-Lexington, on felony charges related to allegations of improper state travel reimbursements. He said last year that other employees had signed his name to those documents.