Horse Racetrack Shutdowns Loom Across Texas
After a tense meeting and a deadlocked vote, the Texas Racing Commission declined Tuesday to repeal its earlier authorization of historical racing, a move that could mean a statewide shutdown for the entire horse racing industry in February.
The commission has been on a collision course with several members of the Legislature since last year, when the Commission voted to authorize tracks to implement historical racing, which involves gambling on electronic simulations of old races. Critics, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, have decried the Commission’s efforts as a backdoor expansion of gambling in Texas.
A state district judge ruled last year that the commission had overstepped its authority. The Texas Horsemen’s Partnership, Texas Thoroughbred Association, the Texas Quarter Horse Association and Sam Houston Race Park have appealed the ruling.
While the legality of the commission’s actions have been makings its way through the court system, legislators weren’t content to wait. They threatened to defund the commission entirely if it didn’t repeal its historical racing rules. Defunding the commission would, in effect, dismantle the horse racing industry across the entire state, as tracks can’t operate without the commission in place to regulate them, according to state law.
In September, after a one-day shutdown, the commission and the Legislative Budget Board agreed to a temporary truce, extending funding through February. The implied condition of the extension was a repeal of historical racing — the repeal that did not pass at Tuesday’s meeting.
The board voted 4-4 to maintain guidelines for historical racing, at least until the February meeting. Victoria North, who attended the meeting as Comptroller Glenn Hegar’s representative on the Commission, abstained.
Later in the meeting, the commission voted to republish the historical racing guidelines and allow for further public comment on them, a move that will give the Commission another chance to vote on the status of historical racing before its budget runs out in late February.
Commission chairman Rolando Pablos, whom Gov. Greg Abbott appointed to the board last week after former chair Robert Schmidt stepped down from the leadership role, made clear during the meeting that he was in favor of a repeal. After the vote, he said the commission might as well begin taking steps to shut itself down.
Before the vote, various representatives from the horse racing industry pled with the commission to maintain historical racing’s legality for the time being. In tearful testimonies, racetrack owners, track employees and the directors of the state’s largest racing associations outlined the impact a repeal would have on thousands of racetrack workers across the state.
Governor Abbott Names Next Education Commissioner
Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday appointed Dallas Independent School District Trustee Mike Morath as the state’s next education commissioner, describing him as “a proven education reformer.”
Morath, chairman of Morath Investments, has served on the Dallas school board since 2011. A vocal school-choice proponent, he pushed for a controversial — and, for now, scrapped — “home rule” policy that would have allowed the Dallas school district to escape state control.
He will succeed Michael Williams as head of the Texas Education Agency, which oversees the state’s more than 1,200 school districts, including charters. Williams, appointed by then-Gov. Rick Perry in 2012, is stepping down Jan. 1.
It is the second leadership post to which Abbott has appointed Morath in recent weeks, although the latest will trump the first. Last month, Abbott picked the apparently avid mountain climber to head a new legislative commission that will recommend changes to the state’s method of student assessment and school accountability. Abbott will have to appoint someone else to head the 15-member Commission on Next Generation Assessments and Accountability, which must make recommendations by Sept. 1.
“The State of Texas is exceptional, and our education system must be too,” Abbott said in a statement Monday. “A proven education reformer, Mike Morath will not accept the status quo in our schools. He is committed to innovative solutions that will empower Texas principals, teachers, and students to strive for the highest in education excellence. Mike Morath has led climbs up Mount Rainier and climbed the 20,305-foot Island Peak near Mount Everest. Now he will help Texas education reach new heights.”
Abbott’s statement called Morath “a change-agent at DISD who led reforms that helped propel Dallas public schools to achieve greater student and operational outcomes.”
Among them: a merit pay system for teachers, higher graduation rates and standardized test scores and better financials — including two bond rating upgrades.
Morath said in his own statement that he intends to bring “a focus on improving student outcomes” and to support teachers.
“I realize that no school system’s students can outperform their teachers, and supporting our teachers to improve teaching quality are essential in our public education system,” he said. “I look forward to advancing that quality, as well as student outcomes, to ensure Texas becomes the number one school system in the nation.”
Teacher groups were not as enthusiastic about Morath’s appointment.
It “sends another signal that Abbott is very interested in the agenda of the education reform and pro-privatization crowd,” the Association of Texas Professional Educators said Monday, citing Abbott’s recent appointment of another reformer to the Pension Review Board, which teachers groups decried.
“We hope that Morath will be the type of commissioner who is receptive to educators’ voices in matters of policy and will support local control,” the association’s executive director, Gary Godsey, said in a statement.
But Morath won bipartisan praise from some elected officials Monday. Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, a Democrat who backed the controversial home-rule initiative, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a tea party Republican, both cheered Abbott’s choice.
“I worked closely with Mike over the years to develop education reforms that have improved our schools and expanded school choice,” Patrick said, referencing his time chairing, and vice chairing, the Senate Education Committee when he was a state senator. “I look forward to continuing our work to make Texas schools the envy of the nation.”
Before becoming a full-time investor, Morath owned a software company, Minute Menu Systems, that assisted child care providers in administering a federal food program for low-income children, according to his biography on the Dallas school district website.
Transportation Agency Names Its Next Chief
The Texas Transportation Commission appointed a new executive director for the Texas Department of Transportation Thursday: James Bass, the agency’s longtime chief financial officer.
Commissioners have been searching for a new executive director for the sprawling agency since October, when current transportation head Joe Weber announced he would step down at the end of the year. The agency received more than 70 applications. Bass was one of eight applicants interviewed, spokeswoman Veronica Beyer said.
Commissioners voted unanimously Thursday to appoint Bass as the new head of TxDOT starting Jan. 1.
Commission Chairman Tryon Lewis said Bass has repeatedly proved himself essential through difficult periods for the agency in the past.
“The commission could depend on his discretion and his judgment and his honor and his honesty in those occasions,” Lewis said.
Bass began working at TxDOT in 1985 and has been CFO since 2005. Bass served as the agency’s interim executive director before the commission selected Weber, a Texas A&M University official who was also a former military leader and longtime friend of Gov. Rick Perry.
Bass will be a familiar face to many state lawmakers as a regular at the Capitol for years, often testifying before committees about the agency’s finances and, perhaps more often, its financial challenges.
But Bass is taking over the agency as it’s poised to see its funding grow significantly after voters approved Proposition 7 in the Nov. 3 election. That measure dedicates $2.5 billion of the general sales tax to the highway fund beginning in 2017 — as well as a portion of future motor vehicle sales taxes beginning in 2019. That, along with other measures by the Legislature over the last three years, is expected to get TxDOT close to the $5 billion in extra funding it said it needed annually to maintain current traffic levels in such a fast-growing state.
Commissioners also praised Weber’s tenure at the agency.
“Over the last two years, you’ve encapsulated what it means to be a forward-thinking, action-oriented leader for this massive agency we call TxDOT,” Commissioner Jeff Moseley told Weber.
Lt. Governor Patrick Appoints Alan West to the Sunset Advisory Commission; Also Changes Leadership to Two of the Senate’s Most Powerful Committees
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Friday announced the appointment of conservative firebrand Allen West, a former Florida congressman and prominent Fox News contributor, to the state’s Sunset Advisory Commission.
West was elected to Congress in 2010 to represent Florida’s 22nd district, and he narrowly lost a re-election bid in 2012. He served in the U.S. Army for more than 20 years, including serving as a battalion commander during the Iraq War, before being stripped of his command after pleading guilty to assaulting an Iraqi detainee during interrogation in 2003, according to the Boston Globe. West retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel and has since become a conservative commentator. West has lived in Dallas for just over a year and is currently president and CEO of the Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis, a think tank.
“There is no mission more important than working towards a more efficient and effective state government,” West said in a statement. “As a graduate of the University of Tennessee and a former member of Congress, it is a blessing to follow in the footsteps of Davy Crockett who came to Texas to fight for liberty and freedom.”
The Sunset Commission, whose members are appointed by the lieutenant governor and speaker of the House, is tasked with periodically reviewing the operation and efficiency of different state agencies. Patrick appointed West as one of the commission’s two public members. The other 10 people on the commission are members of the Legislature. West’s appointment is likely to draw a spotlight on the typically low-profile commission, which is reviewing more than a dozen agencies ahead of the 2017 session, including the Department of Transportation and the Texas Medical Board.
“Lt. Col. West is a dedicated public servant who has served our country in the U.S. Army and the U.S. Congress,” Patrick said. “Now the State of Texas will benefit from his conservative leadership.”
Patrick also made changes to the leadership of two of the Senate’s most powerful committees. State Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, will replace retiring state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay as chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Economic Development Committee. State Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, will replace retiring state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, as chair of the Senate Business and Commerce Committee.
Railroad Commission Names New Executive Director
Texas’ oil and gas regulator has named a new executive director. In a unanimous vote this week, the three-member Texas Railroad Commission named to the position Kimberly Corley, a former executive for the Shell Oil Company.
The executive director oversees the day-to-day operations of the agency and works to implement the policies its commissioners establish.
“Ms. Corley’s technical expertise, executive experience and industry knowledge will be incredibly valuable assets to the commission, and I am confident that she will be an excellent leader,” Chairman David Porter said in a statement.
Corley will replace Lindil Fowler, who was temporarily filling the position after Milton Rister retired in August after three years heading the agency.
Corley has over 30 years of energy industry experience, the agency said. She held several high-level positions at Shell before leaving the energy giant this year. Most recently, she served as the business development manager for gas monetization and general manager of construction risk mitigation and workforce development at Shell Upstream Americas.
Before working at Shell, she held various positions with oil and gas pipeline companies, including Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, El Paso Corporation and Tenneco Energy.
Commissioner Christi Craddick said the agency was eying a starting date in February. Corley will draw an annual salary of $180,000.
- The U.S. Congress is on the verge of lifting a 40-year ban on crude oil exports onto the international market, an issue that pitted Texans who work in oil production — and their House representatives — against those who work in refineries.
- In a just-announced, trillion-dollar Congressional spending bill, House Republicans managed to move forward on an export ban repeal. U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi struck a deal on the budget Tuesday night, and it’s something of a December tradition for lawmakers to tuck pet legislation into massive bills.
The candidate filing deadline has passed, and there is a list of candidates — Republicans and Democrats alike — who have all but been elected. It includes 61 members of the Texas House, nine state senators and five of the state’s 36-member congressional delegation. Those folks didn’t draw an opponent from their own or the other major party. Others have bumpier roads ahead.
Ten members of Congress, two state senators and 15 members of the state House will face opponents in the March primaries and, if they survive, will face opponents again in the November general election.
Some have primary opponents but no general election opponents; the winners of those primaries, whether they are incumbents or challengers, will effectively be ready to take their oaths of office. This group includes four members of Congress, two state senators and 28 members of the Texas House.
Others — 10 U.S. representatives from Texas, two state senators and 30 members of the Texas House — face no primary opponents but will face a candidate from the other major party in the general election 11 months from now.
A relatively few current officeholders have said they will not return, including two in Congress, two in the 31-member state Senate and 16 in the 150-member state House. Two statewide officials — Railroad Commissioner David Porter and Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Cheryl Johnson — are on that list, too.
Only 16 senators are on the ballot in 2016, and nine of them are unopposed. That means 24 of the current 31 senators will be back for more in 2017. In the House, Democrats would have to net 22 seats now held by Republicans. Only 34 Republicans have general election opponents, and Democrats are running in only six of the open seats now held by Republicans. The Democrats would have to win more than half of those — and most were drawn to be prohibitively favorable to Republican candidates.
Below is a quick summary of races in the Texas House, Texas Senate and Congress:
Texas House of Representatives
- 16 Incumbents Not Seeking Re-Election
- 25 Incumbents with Primary Opposition
- 33 Incumbents with General Election Opposition
- 15 Incumbents have both Primary & General Opposition
- 61 Incumbents Have No Major Party Opposition
- 16 Open Seats
Texas Senate Districts
- 2 Incumbents Not Seeking Re-Election
- 15 Incumbents Are Not Up for Re-Election Until 2018
- 2 Incumbents with Primary Opposition
- 2 Incumbents with General Election Opposition
- 1 Incumbent has both Primary & General Opposition
- 9 Incumbents Have No Major Party Opposition
- 2 Open Seats
Texas Congressional Districts
- 2 Incumbents Not Seeking Re-Election
- 5 Incumbents with Primary Opposition
- 9 Incumbents with General Election Opposition
- 15 Incumbents have both Primary & General Opposition
- 5 Incumbents Have No Major Party Opposition
- 2 Open Seats
Check out the recent elections summaries:
Important election dates:
- Early Voting for Primary Election: February 16th-26th, 2016
- Primary Election: March 1st, 2016
- Early Voting for General Election: October 24th-November 4th, 2016
- Election Day: November 8th, 2016
Public Hearing/Formal Meeting Notices
House Committees on Economic and Small Business Development (Invited Testimony Only)
Chair Rep. Button Time/Date: 12 pm Thursday, January 7, 2016
Location: Capitol Extension, E2.010
- #4 Oversee implementation of HB 26 (84R). Review best practices for measuring success of economic development incentives. Consider general metrics or principles to aid the Legislature in determining viable and sustainable incentive programs that provide a “Return on Investment” for taxpayers.
- #6 Examine if the state has an adequately diversified economic foundation and make recommendations on how to better achieve diversification. Look at ways to achieve balance between rural and urban economic development. Consider methods to improve workforce development initiatives and incentives that will improve re-employment after layoffs and release from incarceration as well as methods to improve employment rates for recent graduates.
Joint Committee on Health and Human Services Transition, Oversight
(Invited Testimony Only)
Chair Sen. Nelson, Rep. Price Time/Date: 1:30 pm Monday, January 25, 2016
Location: Capitol Extension, E1.036
Senate Committee on State Affairs (Invited Testimony Only)
Chair Sen. Huffman Time/Date: 9:00 am Tuesday, January 26, 2016
Location: Capitol Extension, E1.016
- Monitor the implementation of open and campus carry legislation and determine if the current laws regulating the places that handguns can be carried are easily understood or if clarification is needed to ensure the average citizen understands when, where, and under what circumstances it is lawful to carry a weapon, versus when it is a criminal offense for which there may be a defense.
Senate Committee on Business and Commerce (Invited Testimony Only)
Chair Sen. Eltife Time/Date: 10:00 am Tuesday, January 26, 2016
Location: Capitol Extension, E1.012
- Study elder financial abuse and determine what steps the State of Texas should take to help protect older Texans from financial exploitation.
- Examine and make recommendations for necessary changes regarding the collection process of delinquent ad valorem property taxes, including an inquiry into the role that tax lien transfers play in forestalling foreclosure.
Senate Committee on Finance
Chair Sen. Nelson Time/Date: 1:00 pm Tuesday, January 26, 2016
Location: Capitol Extension, E1.036
- Monitor the state’s progress in coordinating behavioral health services and expenditures across state government, pursuant to Article IX Sec. 10.04. Identify ways state agencies that provide mental health services are collaborating and taking steps to eliminate redundancy, create efficiency, utilize best practices, ensure optimal service delivery, and demonstrate expenditures are coordinated and in furtherance of a behavioral health statewide strategic plan. Identify barriers that prevent the coordination of behavioral health services. Make recommendations to maximize use of state funding for mental health.
Senate Committee on Transportation (Invited Testimony Only)
Chair Sen. Nichols Time/Date: 10:00 am Wednesday, January 27, 2016
Location: Capitol Extension, E1.016
- Evaluate the efficiency and effectiveness of the state’s Vehicle Inspection Program. Make recommendations on how to compress or otherwise reduce the number of required inspections.
- Evaluate the necessity of the Driver Responsibility Program and make recommendations for alternative methods of achieving the programs objectives.