There appears to be no chance that more than $2 billion in university-construction bonds will make it onto the agenda for the special legislative session that ends June 25. Passage of the bond package could have meant $166 million for projects in El Paso. Two different versions of the bonds died in a House-Senate squabble when the regular session ended on May 27.
Gov. Rick Perry called the special session just after the regular one ended. But at first he put only redistricting on the agenda. He later added transportation funding and anti-abortion legislation. The Austin American Statesman reported that at a press conference this morning, the governor said he would not add anything else.
Scores of legislators have appealed to Perry, saying Texas universities are bursting at the seams and are in great need of new infrastructure. The state is the fastest-growing in the country, but the Legislature hasn't passed tuition-revenue bonds since 2006.
A special Texas Senate committee on redistricting voted along partisan lines Wednesday to approve maps of congressional and legislative districts that Gov. Rick Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott wanted. If the full Senate and the Texas House follow suit, the issue is almost certain to land back in court.
The senators acted only on maps for Congress and the Texas Senate. They said they would wait for a House committee to come up with maps of its own.
Lawmakers are again dealing with district maps because a set drawn in 2011 by the Republican-led Legislature was deemed to be discriminatory by the federal courts. The Judges said that even though minorities made up almost all of Texas' explosive growth, the maps did not allow them to elect more representatives of their choice.
The controversy delayed the primary last year as a federal court in San Antonio drew an interim map. Perry convened the special legislative session that's happing now to make the maps permanent. But the groups that sued in the first place said those maps don't address all the problems that were eventually found with the 2011 maps - nor do they take into account minority growth that's taken place over the last two years.
Minority groups said they would sue again if the Legislature simply adopts the interim maps as Perry and Abbott want. But that's just what the Senate Committee did on Wednesday. On Monday, during a field hearing of the House committee in San Antonio, it appeared there might be room to make a political deal to resolve the dispute.
Gov. Rick Perry is adding to the agenda of a special legislative session within a few weeks of its scheduled end.
Legislative and congressional redistricting had been the only item on the agenda, then on Monday he added funding for transportation - the only one of his regular-session priories that went unaccomplished.
On Tuesday, the governor added anti-abortion legislation and a change that would make the maximum sentence 17 year olds can face life in prison without the chance of parole for 40 years. The latter bill is to conform with a supreme court ruling last year that juveniles can't be sent to prison with no chance at parole.
Still not on the agenda is a funding package for more than $2 billion in university construction - $166 million of it in El Paso.
There is growing chatter in Austin that House Bill 5, which restructures Texas' high-school curriculum and slashes the number of standardized tests, will be vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry before the June 16 deadline.
The bill has been wildly popular with legislators, educators, parents and, not surprisingly, with students fatigued by so many high-stakes tests. It would cut the number they take from 15 to five.
Even so, the influential Capitol-insider blog Quorum Report wrote Wednesday of the "growing conviction that Governor Perry is likely veto HB5."
Why would Perry do such a thing? Who knows. He hasn't done anything yet. But it might be significant that in 2011, as the Legislature was slashing $5.4 billion from public education, the state awarded a five-year, $470 million contract to the company that writes and administers Texas' standardized tests - Pearson Education.
Update: Perry spokesman Josh Havens on Thursday left the door open to a veto when asked about the matter.
"Well, speculation is just that," he said in an email. "The governor is still looking at the bill and we will let you know once he takes action on it."
Field hearings will stretch into next week as the Texas
House considers new districts for itself, Congress and the state Senate.
House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, gaveled the House
into session Monday afternoon only to adjourn 11 minutes later. But then the
chairman of a select committee on redistricting, Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, said
his group would hold a hearing in Dallas on Thursday, San Antonio on June 10
and Houston on June 12.
Gov. Rick Perry called a special session last week to
consider maps that were drawn last year by a federal court in San Antonio.
The process was supposed to take just a few weeks, but then the
federal judges who drew the maps questioned whether they would be constitutional
and House Democrats said they would sue if majority Republicans didn’t open up
Texas has been growing so rapidly that it had four new
congressional seats to fill this year. But the federal courts ruled that
Republicans drew legislative maps in a way that intentionally discriminated
against minority voters.
At the congressional level, the courts ruled that not a
single new district drawn by Republicans was a “minority opportunity” district
– meaning that blocks of minority voters are big enough to hold sway.
Legally, a candidate’s party is irrelevant to minority
blocks’ choice. The question is whether the groups have the power to force
their issues onto the agenda in Austin or Washington, D.C.
But as a practical matter, given today’s political climate
in Texas, it’s highly likely that minority-opportunity districts will go for
Democrats, Matt Angle of the non-partisan advocacy group the Lone Star Project
said in San Antonio last week after the federal panel held a status hearing.
There are black and Hispanic Republicans in the Texas House,
but Angle said they represent districts that are demographically similar to
districts that send white Republicans to Austin.
If districts were drawn fairly, he said, the balance of
power in the Texas House might shift from 95 Republicans vs. 55 Democrats to 85
Republicans vs. 65 Democrats. Since many important actions in the chamber
require a two-thirds majority – or 100 votes – Republicans might have to deal
more with Democrats to get it.
There already was a lot if R-D dealmaking in the House
during 83rd Legislature. Moderate Republican leaders had to contend
with 21-29 votes on their right that frequently defected over issues such as
spending from the state’s rainy-day fund.
Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott wanted the
legislature to just approve the court-drawn, interim maps and go home. But
House Republican leaders seem eager to gather input – and not to antagonize
their Democratic colleagues.
“The point is, we’re listening to what the public is
saying,” Darby said Monday.
One observer who has followed the fight over the district
maps closely on Sunday said that much of what is happening in the Legislature
now is intended to show the courts that the process has been open and fair.
“What we’re trying to hear is specifics about how districts
do not pass constitutional muster,” Darby said.
One of the longest-serving members in the House, Senofria
Thompson, D-Houston, said the majority party routinely seeks to draw the maps
to maximize power – often at the expense of minority voters.
Unlike congressional districts, which all have to have the
same population, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that state legislative
districts only have to be within 10 percent of each other, according to TX
Redistricting, a blog by expert Michael Li.
The rule is intended to keep intact cities and counties, but
in Texas, some advocates say it has been used to crowd members of minority
groups into fewer districts and thus sap their legislative power.
Thompson said that happened in her district under the maps
that were drawn in 2011. She said there were 18,000 more residents - most of
them minorities - in her House district than in the average one.
Thompson said the court-drawn, interim maps largely solved
the problem, but she’s far from convinced that problems have been fixed all
In its simplest terms the fight is over how many seats the
parties hold in the House and the Congress So couldn’t legislative leaders
negotiate what they think is a fair D-R split and work from there?
“I think there’s room for reasonable minds to work this out
and not force the courts to do it for us,” Thompson said.
Briefly back in El Paso last weekend, Rep. Joe Moody, a Democrat, reported good turnout at an open house Saturday.
Such events are not the stuff of blockbuster news stories, but turnout might serve as a measure of how tuned in the public has been on the regular session that ended on Memorial Day and the special session that began about an hour later. Attendance might also be a measure of how much attention all those boring-but-important legislative stories in the newspaper have been getting.
Moody estimated that between 30 and 40 showed up for the open house. They wanted to discuss the new curriculum law the Legislature just passed and redistricting - redrawing the boundaries of congressional and legislative districts that is taking place now.
But mostly, Moody said, people were happy that he chose to locate his district office in the Northeast - in an area that wasn't even part of District 78 until the 2012 election. It's at the intersection of Woodrow Bean and Dyer.
In an about-face, a Texas House committee studying redistricting will go on the road and hold field hearings next week in the state's largest cities.
Dallas, Houston and San Antonio are already on the agenda and Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, is pushing to bring the committee to his hometown as well.
When Gov. Rick Perry called a special session on Monday, he asked the Legislature simply to ratify interim congressional and legislative boundaries. But now, the process appears likely to stretch well beyond the few weeks the special session was expected to take if the Legislature simply did what Perry wanted. The governor was coy on Friday when asked if he would veto a bill that does not make permanent the interim maps, the Austin American Statesman reported.
How the maps are drawn is a big deal because it helps determine how many seats - and thus how much power - each party has in the state Legislature and in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The maps were drawn by a three-judge panel last year after earlier maps drawn by the Republican-controlled Legislature were thrown out by the federal court in San Antonio. The U.S. District Court for the D.C. Circuit later ruled that the original maps were drawn with the intent to discriminate against minority voters.
Texas grew enough, according to the 2010 census, that it added four congressional seats - more than any other state. Even though an estimated 90 percent of the growth consisted of minority voters, the 2011 Republican maps created no districts in which minorities formed a controlling voting block, the courts determined.
The Mexican American Legislative Caucus and other groups sued over the 2011 maps. After a status hearing in San Antonio Wednesday, the group's leader, Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, complained that his group had been locked out of decision making thus far in the special session. He said his group would sue again if the interim maps were forced down his throat.
Extending the hearings, going on the road and considering maps other than those drawn by the court all appear to show House Republicans' desire not to be seen as imposing the maps on Texas' increasingly powerful minority groups. The chairman of the House redistricting committee, Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, said the committee wants to make sure he hears community concerns and comes up with maps that pass constitutional muster.
The Texas House and Senate met briefly Thursday and then adjourned until next week.
They are waiting for committees in both chambers to develop bills setting the maps for congressional and state legislative districts. Gov. Rick Perry called the Legislature into special session Monday and so far, the only task he has set it is redistricting.
If that stays the case, Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, said Thursday that he expects the special session to wrap up June 14.
Last year, primaries were delayed for months after a federal court threw out maps drawn by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2011. Another federal court ruled the maps were intentionally discriminatory because they purposely denied power to minority groups even as their numbers in the state grew.
Last year's elections were held using an interim map drawn by a three-judge panel in San Antonio. In his call for a special session, Perry followed Attorney General Greg Abbott's request and told the Legislature to make the interim maps permament. On Wednesday, Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, the leader of the organization that sued over the 2011 maps, said the interim maps aren't satisfactory. The San Antonio Democrat said the Mexican American Legislative Caucus would sue again if they were adopted.
On Thursday, in a possible gesture of concliation, Senate President Pro Tem Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, said the Senate would not limit itself to considering only the interim maps, as Perry and Abbott want.
That may be an empty gesture, however. On Monday, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said the Senate would not use a rule in the special session that in the regular session allowed Democrats, if they were united, to block measures they didn't like.
In other words, if Republican legislators agree with the Republican governor and attorney general, the interim maps will pass and minority groups will sue again.
Pancho Nevarez, D-Eagle Pass, has been named Freshman of the Year by the Texas House of Representative. He represents the seat vacated by Pete Gallego, who was elected to Congress in November.
Nevarez' District 74 is the largest geographically in Texas. It stretches from the El Paso Couty line hundreds of miles to the east.
His honor was an implicit rebuke to freshmen Republicans who frequently bucked their leaders. The GOP holds 95 seats in the 150-seat house, yet it chose to honor a freshman from the other party.
Also on Monday, the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus, the oldest such group in the country, elected Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-El Paso, as its Freshman of the Year.
Among Gonzalez’ achievements was legislation creating Mission Trail commemorative license plates that will generate funds for the historic area.
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