“We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.”
– C.S. Lewis
Is School Choice in Peril?
The third special session of the legislature started last Monday, and as the clock ticks down, concerns are growing that the Texas House may not address school choice. Brandon Waltens breaks down the timeline inside the Texas Capitol.
When the House met on Thursday, they did so for six minutes. The short meeting wasn’t out of the ordinary for the chamber. Since the special session began, the House has only met four times and has thus far passed none of the legislation Gov. Greg Abbott placed on the agenda.
The Texas House has adjourned until Monday afternoon.
At the top of the special session agenda was Abbott’s call for “legislation providing education savings accounts for all Texas schoolchildren.”
Last week, House Speaker Dade Phelan referred the Senate’s ESA legislation to the House Select Committee on Educational Opportunity & Enrichment. Notably, most of the members of that committee either voted against or refused to cast a vote on school choice during the regular legislative session earlier this year.
The House has no hearings yet scheduled for the Senate’s ESA legislation.
Phelan is ensuring none of the Governors or Republican Party agenda gets passed.
Understanding Texas’ Financial Health: Takeaways from a 2023 State Report
October 19, 2023
Recently, Truth in Accounting (TIA), a fiscal watchdog organization, published a report titled “Financial State of the States 2023” shedding light on the perceived fiscal health of all 50 states in the United States based on key factors.
According to TIA, Texas’ fiscal health slightly improved when compared to last year but it still faces several concerning realities like those of unfunded pension systems and other employee retirement obligations as well as not having enough revenue to pay ongoing expenses.
The Grading System
First, let’s talk about how this report grades states. The grading system ranges from A to F and is based on a state’s perceived “Taxpayer Burden” or “Taxpayer Surplus”. These grades provide context to each state’s financial condition, and Texas ultimately received a “C” compared to last year’s grade of a “D”, but what does this mean?
The Taxpayer Burden
The “Taxpayer Burden” is essentially the amount each taxpayer would have to pay for the state to break even. For Texas, this figure stands at $4,300. While this might not sound like a lot, it’s significant when you consider the state’s population and the fact that not everyone pays taxes.
Texas’ Financial Grade and Ranking
Texas received a “C” grade, placing it 30th out of 50 states in the overall rankings. While we’re not at the bottom of the list, there’s plenty of room for improvement. The state needed $38.4 billion to pay its bills, which is no small figure.
Why Did Texas’ Financial Condition Improve?
The report indicates that Texas’ financial condition improved in 2022. This improvement is attributed to two main factors:
End of Lockdowns: The end of COVID-19 lockdowns led to an increase in tax revenue collections. People started going out again, tourism picked up, and businesses reopened, leading to a healthier economy and, consequently, more tax revenue.
Federal COVID Funds: Texas, like many other states, received federal funding for COVID relief. These funds were used for various purposes, including healthcare and economic stimulus, which contributed to the state’s improved financial condition.
The Elephant in the Room: Unfunded Pensions
However, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows.
The report also highlights that unfunded pensions and other employee retirement obligations plague Texas. Over the last two years, the value of Texas’ pension investments has been subject to market volatility. While there were significant gains in 2021, the market conditions turned negative in 2022, leading to investment losses.
What Does This Mean for Texans?
So, what does all this mean for us, the residents of the Lone Star State and Texas taxpayers? For starters, the “Taxpayer Burden” of $4,300 is something we should all be concerned about. It’s a debt that we collectively owe, and it’s crucial for policymakers to address this issue. Sadly, in the most recent legislative session, state lawmakers passed the largest spending increase in Texas history.
Secondly, while federal funds and the end of lockdowns have given us a temporary respite, they are not long-term solutions. The issue of unfunded pensions is a ticking time bomb that needs immediate attention.
While Texas has shown some financial improvement according to TIA, there’s a long road ahead. The state’s “C” grade and 30th ranking indicate that we have work to do. It’s crucial for us to understand these financial metrics as they have a direct impact on our lives, from the quality of public services to the state’s ability to use taxpayer money in future projects.
EXPLAINER: The Basics of How to Engage with the Legislature
October 4, 2023
The Texas State Legislature meets for its Constitutionally required regular session once every odd-numbered year for 140 days from roughly mid-January to the end of May. The Governor can call additional special sessions of thirty days at any point outside of the regular session. He may only take up legislative tasks included in the Governor’s call.
Many Texas taxpayers are unaware of exactly how to engage with this legislative process efficiently and effectively, despite having a sincere desire to advocate for pro-taxpayer policies, transparency, and responsible government.
Below are some of the key points to consider when beginning the process of engaging with the Texas State Legislative Process.
The lower chamber of the Legislature, the House of Representatives, consists of 150 members, each representing a specific district. Members of the House serve two-year terms. The upper chamber, the Senate, consists of 31 members, each representing a much larger district than House members. Senators serve four-year terms.
One of the first things anyone should tackle is determining who represents you in the two chambers of the State Legislature.
This can be done quickly by entering your information, like your home address, at this link here.
Once you have that determined, you can find more information about your Representative and Senator, including their mailing address, Capitol office location, district office location, office phone numbers, and email information on their page on the respective chamber’s website.
In this legislative process, there are three types of legislation that it is important to be aware of: bills, joint resolutions, and amendments.
Bills, the most common piece of legislation, are what we usually think about when contemplating the process of law-making. House Bills (HBs) originate in the Texas House, and Senate Bills (SBs) originate in the Senate. HBs and SBs are the legal mechanism for creating new laws or amending current laws and only require a simple majority vote in both chambers and the Governor’s signature.
Joint Resolutions are the mechanism for amending the Texas Constitution. House Joint Resolutions (HJRs) and Senate Joint Resolutions (SJRs) are proposals for amending the Constitution, that must be passed by two-thirds of both chambers and then favorably voted for by citizens with a simple majority in a statewide election.
Amendments are smaller pieces of legislation that are typically brought to other pieces of legislation on the House or Senate floor during the debate on the main piece of legislation. Amendments can be anything from several pages long to simply adding or subtracting one word from a bill. It is important to keep an eye on the amendments that are offered on legislation, as amendments can have a substantial impact on the bill or resolution at hand.
If there is a piece of legislation that is particularly important to you, you can use an online resource called Texas Legislature Online (TLO) to track the legislation and receive updates about its progress.
Simply go to TLO here and create an account. Once you have an account on TLO, you will be able to create custom bill lists, receive email notifications when actions are taken on bills, receive committee notices, and several other helpful tools to make your engagement with the Legislature more fruitful.
TLO is your friend…
TLO is a resource that can provide more than just email alerts. Essentially it is a one-stop-shop for most of your Texas legislature needs: Find the status of a bill, see the results of votes taken in either chamber, find amendments proposed on bills, important dates, committee information, and access to the House and Senate websites for the live stream of both chambers and committee rooms.
Bookmarking TLO and using it routinely is highly recommended so you can keep yourself informed about the legislative agenda, proposed bills, and upcoming sessions.
Before engaging with any Representatives, Senators, and their staff, it is important to have clear and well-thought-through reasons for your positions on whatever bills or policies you wish to oppose or advocate for.
Writing out notes and testimony or developing a simple one-pager that can be digested easily and quickly are ideal, especially for shorter interactions with legislators and their staff.
Try to tie in personal experience and make your “why” clear.
When, Where, and How?
Visiting the capitol is relatively simple, even if it is your first time.
The Capitol building itself is open seven days a week, but the offices of Representatives and Senators are often not open unless the Legislature is in Session (either during their regular session in odd-numbered years or during a special session called by the Governor).
The easiest parking is the Texas Capitol Visitors Parking Garage, which is to the east of the Capitol building, located here.
The Capitol has four entrances: North, South, East, and West. Security is stationed at each one.
The Capitol Complex is quite large and is made up of the Capitol Building itself, as well as a large underground extension, which is where many of the offices and committee hearing rooms are located. Several different maps of the Capitol Complex can be found here, and the best map for inside the Capitol can be found here.
see to it that you advocate directly with your local Representative and Senator and their Staff. This can be accomplished through a variety of means, including calling, emailing, writing letters, and most especially, visiting the capitol office.
Most offices will be open for walk-in meetings during the Session, at least with staff. Attempt to schedule a meeting with the Representative or Senator to discuss the issues important to you. This can often be accomplished by calling or emailing their scheduler or Chief of Staff. Establishing a positive and respectful relationship with your legislators and their staff can only help your cause.
One of the most effective and important ways of engaging with the legislative process is participating in the committee process by giving oral or written testimony or by simply registering your position on a bill.
Planning is essential. Be sure to know where the committee room is and what time the committee hearing begins as soon as possible. You can check on upcoming committee meetings at the link here.
Once you arrive at the Capitol, you will need to register your position on the legislation beforehand and register to testify if you choose. These processes can be slightly different between the House and the Senate.
The House Procedures:
The House has a simple, five-step registration process that can be accomplished either at a kiosk in the hallways of the Capitol Extension or on a personal device such as your phone or laptop at the link here. The link will only work if you are connected to the Capitol’s Wi-Fi.
More information about the House Registration can be found here.
The Senate Procedures:
The Senate’s registration process can differ somewhat.
Begin your process at one of the many kiosks in the Capitol Extension hallways. If the bill you wish to testify on is listed on the kiosk, then you can proceed as you would for a bill being heard in a House Committee.
If the bill is not listed on the kiosk, then the committee that the bill is being heard in uses a paper registration process. The paper cards for registration and testimony will usually be found either at the back of the committee room or with the Committee Clerk at the front of the room. Follow the instructions on the paper card and return it to the Clerk.
Testifying in Committee for either chamber:
Regardless of which chamber’s committee you are testifying in, here are some pointers that will apply to both:
Know the bill number that you are testifying on ahead of time, and be sure to register “For,” “Against”, or “Neutral/On” the bill in question.
If you elect to actually testify on the legislation, be sure to be available at any time to be called up. The Chair of the Committee determines the order in which bills will be heard, in addition to the order testimony on those bills will be heard.
Sometimes, testimony will be limited to a certain amount of time for each person, so be aware of any time constraints. Always begin your testimony by stating your name, who you represent (yourself or an organization, or both), and your position on the bill, and finish your testimony with a request that members of the committee support or oppose the bill(depending on your position). Remember to always be respectful, clear, concise, and truthful.
Advocacy outside the Capitol
Lastly, advocacy and engagement with the legislative process doesn’t just happen directly with Legislators or within the Capitol building itself. Much can also be accomplished by being involved in, or supporting groups, initiatives, and movements outside the pink dome.
Find groups that will fight for conservative policies at all levels of government (and not just pay lip service to those ideals) and support them with your time and money.
One of those groups is Texans for Fiscal Responsibility (TFR).
TFR has consistently fought for pro-taxpayer reforms, responsible government, and conservative policies since our inception in 2007, and we will continue to do so.
We have an abundance of resources, such as our Texas Fiscal Responsibility Index that shows the scores and details the votes taken of all State Representatives and Senators at the end of each regular session so voters can hold them accountable for their actions, articles covering the Legislature and current events, Research, “Explainers,” and more to help inform, illuminate and equip Texans to fight for sound government.
Fight the Good Fight
Remember that your engagement is essential for a vibrant and responsive government. So, seize these opportunities and help for policies and laws that will promote prosperity in the Lone Star State.
State Audit Finds Harris County Violated Texas Election Law in 2022
In a preliminary report, the Texas Secretary of State’s Office found that Harris County did not provide statutorily mandated supplies of ballot paper.
Sen. Paul Bettencourt provided a statement to The Texan on the secretary of state’s audit.
Texas Secretary of State (SOS) Jane Nelson released a preliminary report on an audit of Harris County’s 2022 elections showing problems with voter registration data, a failure to provide necessary supplies, equipment failures, and incomplete or missing paperwork.
“Harris County clearly had multiple failures conducting the election and violated election law for estimating needed ballot paper,” said Nelson in a statement.
Texas election code requires officials to provide each voting site with ballots equal to 125 percent of voter turnout in the last corresponding election, but Harris County Elections Administrator Clifford Tatum only supplied 600 ballots to locations that had processed twice that many voters in 2018, according to testimony provided in an election contest trial last August.
The county argued in court that the statute does not apply because it has a county-wide voting system.
Multiple polling locations ran out of ballot paper on Election Day and some election judges testified that they were unable to process voters. Auditors also noted that the county experienced a high volume of spoiled ballots due to equipment malfunctions, further depleting the available supplies at each voting center. In total, there were 12,833 spoiled ballots for the election.
Other problems cited in the findings include inadequate training for election workers, which led to incomplete paperwork and problems with voting system equipment.
Auditors found that at least 38 locations experienced a “gap or cessation of voter check-ins of one hour or more,” but that there may have been more locations affected for shorter periods.
Locations identified with a gap in voter check-ins. Image from the Office of the Secretary of State, “Preliminary Findings Report November 8, 2022, General Election Harris County.”
Of the county’s 782 polling locations, 27 percent failed to return or properly complete necessary paperwork.
The SOS also reported that the county’s voter registrations exceeded the number reported to the statewide voter system by a “sizable” 9,283 and that nearly 3,600 mail ballots were sent to voters but not reported to the state.
Auditors said they could not identify the exact cause of the discrepancies.
“Mistakes like these led to a poorly executed election which left many Harris County residents frustrated and may have prevented them from voting,” said Nelson. “It is important to talk about these issues now in order to address them before the 2024 election cycle.”
Harris County Republican Party Chair Cindy Siegel said she was not surprised by the results.
“Harris County grassroots Republicans, election workers, and candidates have testified to the issues mentioned in the report countless times, whether to the media, the Texas Legislature, in a court of law, and fellow voters,” said Siegel. “We’ve known how broken the system is long before this audit, but we’re thankful it’s all coming to light.”
A 2021 state election overhaul law mandated audits for two Texas counties with populations fewer than 300,000 and two with populations greater than 300,000, to be selected at random. Last year, SOS announced that Harris County had been among those selected for the audit of all elections from the 2020 general election through the 2022 general election, including all primaries.
After the announcement, the commissioners court voted along party lines to file a challenge to the audit but ultimately did not follow through with legal action.
SOS audited the 2020 general election but encountered delays when former Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria allegedly failed to respond to requests for information and did not make staff available to talk to the auditors, who visited the county on multiple occasions. After Tatum replaced Longoria, the SOS was able to complete the audit in December 2022.
Following the 2022 election, 22 candidates filed election contests in Harris County, but only one — that filed by Republican Erin Lunceford against Democrat Tamika Craft — has gone to trial. Multiple other candidates have since dropped their election contests, including Alexandra del Moral Mealer, the GOP candidate for Harris County Judge.
In response to Harris County’s troubled elections, during the 88th regular legislative session state lawmakers mandated that counties with populations greater than 3.5 million must return management of elections to elected officials. As the only qualifying county, Harris County filed a lawsuit to block implementation of the law. After a lower court issued an injunction, the Supreme Court of Texas intervened and allowed the law to take effect. A hearing is set in the case for November 28.
Texas Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) said the SOS audit recognized the “obvious” problems that led to his legislation returning election management to elected officials.
“Having 9,000 more voters than were reported to the state system along with 3.6K more ballots sent out to voters but not reported to the state system are serious problems,” said Bettencourt. “Secretary Nelson’s report also recognizes the obvious huge problem with ballot paper distribution not complying with state law. This lead to a disruption in the whole process and inadequate supplies at polling locations.”
“Basically, the County Government’s Election Administrator left 3 million sheets of ballot paper in the warehouse and didn’t get enough ballots to the polls resulting in voter suppression of thousands of votes.”
In September, Harris County was forced to return elections management to the elected county clerk and elected tax assessor-collector & voter registrar. Tatum has since gone to work for Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2).
Additional legislation passed earlier this year allows SOS to assume administrative oversight of Harris County elections following complaints from certain stakeholders and a subsequent investigation. The SOS has created a form for reporting election complaints.
The SOS noted that failures identified in the preliminary findings are based on data and documentation provided by the county and that additional findings may be included in the comprehensive report as new information becomes available.
The Harris County District Attorney’s Office and the Texas Rangers are also investigating criminal complaints related to the county’s 2022 elections.
Early voting begins October 23 for proposed amendments to the Texas Constitution, for Houston mayor, and for multiple other local elections. Houston mayor, and for multiple other local elections.
Colony Ridge Development Takes Center Stage in Texas House Committee Hearing
The hearing was the beginning of the Texas Legislature’s official evaluation of the issue before deciding how to move forward.
The first step toward a legislative response to the Terrenos Houston development, also known as Colony Ridge, in Liberty County began Thursday in a committee hearing that featured testimony from witnesses, including the developer and local sheriff.
Lawmakers said they were unsure as to why this item had been added to the special session call, though most acknowledged there are very real problems that need to be addressed; they expressed dismay at what the issue had turned into, with wild claims thrown around left and right.
In total, the committee fielded testimony from Col. Steve McCraw of the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), Colony Ridge CEO John Harris, Liberty County Sheriff Bobby Rader, Liberty County Judge Jay Knight, and three officials from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).
DPS has been “surging” the area for months now, trying to help the sheriff with enforcement in the 50,000-person development that accounts for half of his county’s population. Only three deputies, at most, are patrolling the settlement at any given time.
The problems of Colony Ridge, according to the sheriff and county judge, are that of scale — typical infrastructure and crime problems associated with a massive population airdropped into a rural exurban county.
Both Rader and McCraw underscored messages said previously, namely that there is not a “no-go zone” inside Colony Ridge as some in the national media have alleged and that the organized crime activity within it is not inordinate.
One thing Rader did ask of members was to provide more resources to police the area. The biggest reason it’s grabbed the national spotlight is that some unknown number of illegal immigrants reside in the development, made possible by its contract for deed practice in which financing is obtained through the developer rather than a bank.
Law enforcement does not know how much of Colony Ridge’s population is there illegally, and they say they have little way of checking unless criminal arrests are made for other offenses.
Harris, visibly upset with the spotlight on his development has fallen under, spent much of his time venting about the situation and arguing he and his brother Trey, co-owner of Colony Ridge, have done everything in accordance with the law.
State Rep. Jay Dean (R-Longview) asked Harris, “Why the hell are we here?”
“I still don’t know the answer,” the developer responded.
During the testimony, Attorney General Ken Paxton joined the broader conversation in releasing a very pointed letter on Colony Ridge.
Responding to an inquiry from Texas’ GOP congressional delegation, Paxton laid the blame for the Colony Ridge development at the feet of two legislators for their bill that created a special purpose district for the area.
“Upon investigation, the Office of the Attorney General found that Colony Ridge in particular was made possible by a specific arrangement created by Senator Robert Nichols and Representative Ernest Bailes,” Paxton wrote. Both Bailes and Nichols represent the area in which Colony Ridge sits and both voted against Paxton on his impeachment.
Paxton added, “I am beyond disappointed in Senator Nichols and Representative Bailes for apparently working to enrich specific developers at enormous expense to the rest of the public and reducing the quality of life for their own constituents.”
The letter continues, “Municipal Management District (MMD) authority was specifically granted to create an advantageous carve-out for the Colony Ridge development to act virtually as its own city.”
The law to which Paxton refers is House Bill (HB) 4341 from 2017, which established the Liberty County Municipal Management District (MMD) No. 1. Similar special purpose districts are created frequently by the Legislature every session.
HB 4341 passed 30 to 1 in the Senate and 137 to 7 in the House. The Liberty County Commissioners Court voted 3 to 2 in favor of the MMD back in 2017, though the vote held no actual authority on the measure.
At the May 2018 ballot box, a grand total of one voter approved the MMD’s creation in an election run by the district’s law firm Coats Rose, according to the Liberty County Clerk Lee Chambers. The following November, another election was held that authorized the creation of a 1.5 percent sales tax within its boundaries to help fund its activities.
It is notable that this was created as an MMD rather than a Municipal Utility District (MUD), the latter of which is geared more toward residential development than commercial.
In 2021, the MMD and MUD were combined into one entity, according to records obtained by The Texan. Notably, Colony Ridge’s developer Trey Harris serves as the MMD’s president.
“In 1991, the legislature created Municipal Management District authority through Chapter 375 of the Texas Local Government Code,” Paxton added.
“Legislative Findings and Purposes in Chapter 375 generally show that MMDs were intended to be used to revitalize already-developed urban commercial areas, rather than to develop raw land. MMDs were originally used as an extension of city government, providing tax authority to residents to beautify their communities and improve local economic conditions.”
Paxton’s argument is that, since Colony Ridge is a residential development, an MMD was the wrong bureaucratic tool.
The State of Texas is awash with special purpose districts — an umbrella category that includes both MMDs and MUDs — as its population grows rapidly.
These special purpose districts are a difficult dilemma to solve: they create millions of dollars in debt and taxing authority, often with only one temporary voter approving their creation. Additionally, if legislators do not approve them, the TCEQ can do so without say from any elected officials.
But on the flip side, the reason they’re utilized in the first place is to create infrastructure to support population growth before that population materializes.
Something that could be among the legislative responses is state Rep. Keith Bell’s (R-Forney) HB 176, which would require permission from the county commissioners court before a special purpose district could be created. A similar, though bracketed bill passed the House during the regular session but did not advance out of the Senate Local Government Committee.
Gov. Greg Abbott’s special session proclamation lists one related item: “Legislation concerning public safety, security, environmental quality, and property ownership in areas like the Colony Ridge development in Liberty County, Texas.”
It’s rather vague, which leaves open-ended exactly what the Legislature is to do about the development. There is sure to be at least one more committee hearing on the issue during this special session whenever the Senate takes it up.