State Capital Highlights

by Ed Sterling, Texas Press Association —

AUSTIN — On May 27, the last day of the 140-day regular session of the
83rd Texas Legislature, Gov. Rick Perry called a special session to
begin that very day.

Perry’s only stated purpose in keeping
lawmakers in Austin is for the Legislature to pass legislation that
“ratifies and adopts redistricting plans ordered by the federal district
court as the permanent plans for districts used to elect members of the
Texas House of Representatives, Texas Senate and United States House of
Representatives.” In 2010 and 2011 various redistricting maps were in
and out of federal courts over matters relating to preclearance, a
requirement under Section 5 of the U.S. Voting Rights Act that subjects
Texas to when new laws relating to voting are passed here, because of
the state’s history of discrimination in conducting elections.

Quickly,
eight redistricting bills, House Bills 1 through 4 by House Select
Committee on Redistricting Chair Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, and Senate
Bills 1 through 4 by Senate Select Committee on Redistricting Chair Kel
Seliger, R-Amarillo, were filed to address the governor’s call. Of the
eight bills, HB 2 and its mirror, SB 2, relating to the composition of
districts for the election of members of the Texas Senate, incited the
least resistance at hearings conducted last week.

The Senate
Select Committee on Redistricting met May 30. Input voiced by Sen.
Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, and Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, made it
clear that maps the governor wants enacted face more rounds of court
challenges over the lack of minority opportunity districts and dilution
of the voting strength of certain communities of interest. West asked,
in essence, if the purpose of the special session was simply to
rubberstamp the federal court’s interim maps or to accept amendments to
those maps that cure constituents’ voting rights concerns. Chairman
Seliger said the governor’s call does not limit amendments to the
redistricting bills.

The House Select Committee on Redistricting
met on May 31 and on June 1. Committee member Rep. Trey
Martinez-Fischer, D-San Antonio, expressed doubt that issues with the
court-drawn maps could be resolved in the time frame contemplated by the
governor. Of the citizens who testified before the committee, several
said the hearings were scheduled on such short notice few potential
witnesses could testify.

Chairman Darby tentatively proposed
regional redistricting hearings to be held June 5 in Dallas, June 6 in
Houston and June 7 in San Antonio. Reps. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, and
Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, both members of the redistricting committee,
indicated that their home districts also would be appropriate sites for
redistricting hearings.

The House redistricting committee is
composed of 12 Republicans and seven Democrats. The Senate redistricting
committee is composed of nine Republicans and six Democrats.

March of new laws begins
Hundreds
of bills recently passed last month by the Legislature have landed on
the governor’s desk, awaiting a signature of approval, but a few will
not be signed, indicating approval that is not wholehearted. Some have
been or will be vetoed, and it takes a two-thirds vote in both houses of
the Legislature to override a veto.

Signed and unsigned bills
will become new laws, most to take effect on Sept. 1. A few of the bills
that will take effect Sept. 1 include:

– HB 4, intended to
preserve Texas’ water supply for the next 50 years by promoting
conservation and innovative reuse. Funding is tied to Senate Joint
Resolution 1, a proposed constitutional amendment on the Nov. 5 ballot
to use $2 billion from the state’s “rainy day fund” savings account.
– HB 2961, preventing public disclosure of the Social Security number of a school district employee or former employee.
– SB 160, requiring an election officer, on accepting a poll watcher
for service, to provide the watcher with a form of identification
prescribed by the secretary of state to be displayed by the watcher
during the watcher’s hours of service at the polling place.

Comptroller plans not to run
The
state’s top accountant, Comptroller Susan Combs, announced May 29 she
would not seek reelection or election to any other post in 2014. First
elected state comptroller in 2006, Combs is a former Texas agriculture
commissioner and a former state representative.

Sen. Glenn
Hegar, R-Katy, said he plans to run for comptroller in 2014, and other
current lawmakers have indicated interest in the post.