John Whitmire

In this Dec. 12, 2013, file photo, Republican candidates, from left, state Sen. Dan Patrick, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Agricultural Commissioner Todd Staples and Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson prepare for a debate at Texas State Technical College, in Waco.

 

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

There are four Republican candidates for lieutenant governor this year: incumbent David Dewhurst, Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and state Sen. Dan Patrick. With all four vying to win the Republican primary — a contest determined by the just over 10 percent of voters, many of them passionate conservatives — the candidates have unsurprisingly been taking political positions further and further to the right.

Most of the lieutenant governor’s powers involve the position’s role as the president of the Texas Senate. The lieutenant governor presides over the chamber, names the chairmen of the ever-powerful committees and helps to craft the rules at the beginning of each session. Accordingly, many of the far-right ideas propagated by these candidates will involve changing the way the Senate works and runs. And in Texas, where the state Senate features a Democratic Party that is in the minority and desperate to use every dilatory maneuver at its disposal, this could mean big changes to the rules in the legislative process that currently benefit the minority. 

According to the lieutenant governor hopefuls, the most odious abuse of power from Democrats in the Senate stems from the use of the dreaded two-thirds rule. The idea is actually quite simple: A supermajority of the Senate — 21 of the 31 senators — must agree on a bill before it is brought to the floor. The rule, which originated when Democrats held all 31 seats in the Senate, is designed to protect minority interests and viewpoints in the deliberative body. Despite the fact that Dewhurst was strongly in favor of this parliamentary hurdle earlier in his lieutenant governorship, the policy’s fate now looks much more uncertain, no matter which Republican candidate takes the reins. But to remove it would eliminate some sacred safeguards in our system of checks and balances, which protect both geographical and political minority interests.

Of course, if you ask any of the Republicans running for lieutenant governor, they will not admit that they want to vanquish this protection of minority interests. Patrick, in a push that has been affirmed by the other candidates, said he believes 60 percent should be the new threshold. The percentage conveniently works out to 19 senators, the exact number of members in the Senate Republican caucus. In other words, make no mistake: Lowering the threshold by even those two votes would have the capacity to completely eliminate any semblance of power or relevance that the Senate Democratic caucus may currently have. 

Despite these concerns, the big pushback against the two-thirds rule fails to take into consideration the myriad other functions of the policy besides blocking controversial red vs. blue bills. Historically, the rule was designed to protect rural interests against those of urban concerns. So with approximately 19 senators hailing from the cities and suburbs today, changing the two-thirds rule may disadvantage not only Democrats, but also rural areas. 

“Democrats and urban Republicans will team up,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, and dean of the upper chamber. “Mark my words, we will run this state together.” 

This view has been reaffirmed by other Democratic state senators, who appear rather confident that a change in the rules would foster positive benefits for them in addition to the obvious drawbacks. Simply put, while the more controversial social issues come up every once in a while, the vast majority of the Legislature’s business is mundane, day-to-day financial measures that split legislators more geographically than politically. Especially when it comes to important monetary choices on water and transportation, an urban coalition would have the capacity to steamroll over the rural minority.

When I mentioned this to Dewhurst, he simply said, “I don’t want to see anyone get steamrolled,” but avoided being specific as to how that would be avoided. Dewhurst, of course, is a Houstonian, as are Patterson and Patrick. Dewhurst was adamant that this possible harm to rural areas or other minority interests would all be worth it because the Democrats are unreasonably stubborn in their demands, “not even coming to the table.”

Whitmire would definitely disagree with this assessment. He spoke of Democrats and Republicans coming together to reform gun laws, appeasing conservative demands while still placating liberal concerns. Specifically pertaining to UT students, in the compromise he claims credit for, students may now bring their handguns to campus in their locked cars, while a more ambitious proposal to allow concealed carry on campus was tabled. 

“The system worked,” Whitmire said. “And Republicans were content with what we accomplished, so ‘campus carry’ was not resurrected in a special session.”

The two-thirds rule is an important tradition with honorable motives in our state Senate. It protects both political and geographical minorities, and it encourages collaboration and bipartisanship. The rule should not be eliminated or diminished, no matter the desires of the current Republican leadership.

Horwitz is a government junior from Houston. Follow Horwitz on Twitter @NmHorwitz.

Concealed handgun license holders could carry on university campuses if the Texas Legislature approves a bill going before the House of Representatives on Saturday.

The bill, authored by State Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Cypress, would authorize university administrators to establish rules prohibiting concealed handguns in buildings located on campus only after consulting faculty, staff and students.

Fletcher said the bill would “decriminalize” possessing concealed handguns on campus. He said license holders would have to meet the age requirement — 21 and over — and will have completed background checks and training.

“It won’t be a bunch of 19-year-old freshmen running around at frat parties with guns,” Fletcher said. “They will be over 21.”

Similar legislation has stalled in the Senate. State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, has said he would not bring the Senate companion to the bill up for a hearing in the committee.

Whitmire said Thursday if the House passes Fletcher’s bill, it could come to his committee for an “unnecessary” hearing or be referred to another committee.

“Whichever committee gets it and looks at it, it’s going to be dead because there are not 21 votes [for the bill] on the Senate floor,” Whitmire said.

A bill that passed out of the Senate Tuesday would allow license holders to keep concealed handguns in their vehicles while on campus. Whitmire voted for the bill and said it was a reasonable compromise. 

The bill’s author, state Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, said he does not see his bill as a substitute to campus carry because the two proposals address two separate ways to carry firearms.

He said instances such as the Jan. 22 shooting at Lone Star College-North Harris do not reflect the behavior of law-abiding concealed handgun license holders. In that instance, the gunman injured three people, including himself, after arguing with a student.

“A piece of paper that has a law on it that’s trying to prevent law-abiding citizens from having their firearm in their car doesn’t stop that deranged individual,” Hegar said. “So we have to separate criminals, people that have intent to do harm and law-abiding citizens.”

State Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, voted against Hegar’s proposal and said he would vote against similar legislation if it came from the House.

“All it does is promote proliferation of guns on public spaces, and I don’t think they have any business in learning institutions, whether it’s in elementary schools, high schools or universities,” Rodriguez said.

UT and UT System officials have repeatedly stated their opposition to legislation allowing handguns on campuses.

UT President William Powers Jr. has signaled his opposition to the legislation throughout this session. UT spokesman Gary Susswein said Thursday that Powers’ stance has not changed.

“President Powers’ position on this issue has been clear,” Susswein said. “He does not believe guns on campus are a good idea.”

In a March 12 letter, UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa told Gov. Rick Perry he does not believe the presence of concealed handguns on campus would create a safer environment.

State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, authored the Senate version of campus carry rejected by Whitmire. Birdwell said the presence of handguns does not mean an increase in crime or violent incidences.

“If that were the case, then we would have the shootings at the grocery stores, the Starbucks, all the places where you can lawfully carry your CHL,” Birdwell said. “To make that assumption is ludicrous.”

Universities would not be able to prohibit students with concealed handgun licenses from storing handguns and ammunition in their vehicles on university property if a proposed law passes the Texas Legislature.

The Texas Senate Committee on Criminal Justice approved the bill by a 4-1 vote Wednesday. The bill, filed by state Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, would prevent universities from adopting policies that would disallow licensed students from storing weapons in privately owned vehicles in parking garages, parking lots and streets located on university property.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, and Senate Committee on Criminal Justice chairman, said he believed Hegar’s proposal is a reasonable alternative to separate legislation that would allow concealed carry license holders to carry concealed handguns inside campus buildings.

Whitmire said he will not bring legislation allowing guns in campus buildings up for a hearing in his committee, citing the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., and law enforcement’s quick response to the Jan. 22 shooting at Lone Star College-North Harris near Houston.

“Quite frankly, I think there’s probably people right at this moment on campus with illegal guns in their trunk and on their person, but they’re doing it illegally, and that’s wrong,” Whitmire said. “For us, the state, to allow it, sanction it, I think is wrong at this time.”

State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, authored legislation in the Senate that would allow concealed carry licensees to carry on campus. Birdwell’s chief of staff Ben Stratmann told The Dallas Morning News that he believes the legislation is “still alive.”

The situation is different in the House. A bill authored by state Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Cypress, allowing concealed handgun license holders to carry those weapons on campus, gained the approval of the Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee and is set to be heard before the full House.

Senate committee approves bill allowing guns in vehicles on college campuses

Universities would not be able to prohibit students with concealed handgun licenses from storing handguns and ammunition in their vehicles on university property if a proposed law passes the Texas Legislature.

The Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee approved the bill by a 4-1 vote Wednesday. The bill, filed by state Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, would prevent universities from adopting policies that would disallow licensed students from storing weapons in privately owned vehicles in parking garages, parking lots and streets located on university property.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, and Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman, said he believed Hegar’s proposal was a reasonable alternative to separate legislation that would allow concealed carry license holders to carry concealed handguns inside campus buildings.

Whitmire said he would not bring that legislation up for a hearing in his committee, citing the Dec. 15 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., and law enforcement’s quick response to the Jan. 22 shooting at Lone Star College-North Harris near Houston.

“Quite frankly, I think there’s probably people right at this moment on campus with illegal guns in their trunk and on their person, but they’re doing it illegally and that’s wrong,” Whitmire said. “For us, the state to allow it, sanction it, I think is wrong at this time.”

State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, authored legislation in the Senate that would allow concealed carry licensees to carry on campus. Birdwell’s chief of staff Ben Stratmann told The Dallas Morning News that he believes the legislation is “still alive.”

The situation is different in the House. A bill authored by state Rep. Allan Fletcher, R-Cypress, allowing concealed handgun license holders to carry those weapons on campus gained the approval of the Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee and is set to be heard before the full House.

Texas senators tentatively approved the abortion sonogram bill Monday, which is one of the five emergency items Gov. Rick Perry announced at the start of the session.

The bill would require women seeking an abortion to see a sonogram and listen to a description of the fetus and its heartbeat at least 24 hours before being eligible for an abortion. The House passed its version of the bill in March, while the Senate passed an amended version more than one month later. The main difference between the two versions is the time period requirement — the House’s version proposes 24 hours, compared to the Senate version’s two hours.

Because they could not agree, five representatives and senators went into conference committee, where they ultimately decided on a two-hour clause for women living in rural areas. Women who live more than 100 miles away from a clinic can opt to wait only two hours after a sonogram to receive an abortion.

The Senate took up the bill from conference committee Monday, and its version tightened up the bill’s language.

“If you look at the heart of what this bill does, it says a woman has the right to have access to the medical information from informed consent before she makes that decision,” said sonogram bill author Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston. “She has the option to look at the sonogram, hear the heartbeat, but at least she should know about it.”

The rural area clause was not be enough for Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who said the bill
should also accommodate a broader array of situations women may face
while making the “toughest decision of their life.”

“It may be other circumstances that would impede someone from being able to follow your soon-to-be requirements,” Whitmire said. “It disturbs me on behalf of the people I represent.”

He went as far as saying the bill might unintentionally push women to go to illegal or out-of-state abortion clinics or other countries, such as Mexico, to have the
procedure done.

Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, strongly opposed the sonogram bill and said it had an ulterior motive.

“The purpose of the bill is to traumatize women who are
considering an abortion procedure into making a decision otherwise,”
Davis said. “Have we thought about the psychological impact of
this on women?”

Patrick quickly responded during the tense moment before Davis could continue.

“Senator, you know me better than that. You know the purpose of the bill is not to traumatize
women,” he said. “I think we’re going to improve the medical
care for women.”

Davis later proposed three of seven amendments to the bill, including one that would give women the option to receive the information from their “trusted” primary physician versus an abortion doctor. Patrick did not accept it.

“Right now under [current] informed consent, a woman’s own doctor can give her the information,” Davis said. “It would only make sense for a woman to go through the process with her
own doctor.”

Senators will hear the controversial bill again tomorrow for a final Senate floor vote. If the Senate passes the legislation, it will again move to the House for a floor vote.

State leaders ordered in a letter to state agencies Tuesday to make another 2.5 percent reduction in spending for the current budget period as sales tax revenues continue to underperform initial budget projections.

The cut means that UT will have to reduce its budget by an additional $7.5 million for the current budgeting period, which ends in September, said Kevin Hegarty, the University’s chief financial officer.

“We don’t know where [we’re going to cut], we haven’t had a chance to discuss it,” Hegarty said. “Obviously, any reductions we make, we’d want to be thoughtful, but that doesn’t make it any easier, having already cut 5 percent.”

He said the UT Budget Council would be getting together “soon” to discuss the latest budget cut request from state leaders.

This budget cut would come on top of the $15 million reduction that Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Texas House Speaker Joe Straus ordered early this year. Those cuts will be followed by an additional 10-percent cut to UT’s budget for the 2012-2013 budgeting cycle.

In all, UT’s budget is projected to be $52 million smaller than it was when the legislators passed the current budget in 2009 — before legislators offer any additional cuts as they attempt to close an estimated $25 billion budget shortfall.

The letter from Perry, Dewhurst and Straus comes three weeks after the House speaker and lieutenant governor announced at a Legislative Budget Board meeting that they would seek the extra spending cuts but weren’t ready to announce the details.

“Texas’ economy remains strong and as we lead the nation in recovery from the economic downturn, we will continue to ensure that Texans’ tax dollars are spent prudently,” Perry said in a statement released Monday. “Identifying these savings builds on our ongoing call to keep government spending in check so that we can balance our state budget without raising taxes and continue to attract businesses that create jobs for Texans.”

Leading Democrats say there is no way to balance the budget with just cuts alone because the budget deficit makes up almost 30 percent of state-controlled spending.

“What’s being said in Austin by the newly elected members is that they [want to balance the budget] strictly by cuts, I don’t think they know what they’re talking about,” said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, chairman of the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

Whitmire said Texas wouldn’t be able to provide the basic services — such as environmental protection, road maintenance, public or higher education or public safety — with such cuts to the budget deficit and said the state must look at ways to increase revenue.

He made the remarks about the overall budget crisis last week in the context of discussion about what cutbacks to public safety might mean for the adult correction system.

“Higher education has already raised their tuition beyond any reasonable amount. The negative impact of tuition increases is being felt and they’d be required to raise tuition again,” Whitmire said. “When we go through the reality check, then everyone will sober up and realize that we’ve got a real trainwreck on our hands.”
 

Programs responsible for reducing Texas’ prison population could be at risk in January as lawmakers struggle to deal with the estimated $25 billion shortfall in the state budget.

State leaders have suggested that top state priorities be funded first, leaving criminal justice reform advocates worried there will not be sufficient money to properly fund probation and drug treatment programs.

“We’re going to have a big budget cut coming up, and it’s going to be part of the discussion — what are our priorities and where [money] is going to go,” said state Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano, vice chair of the Texas House Corrections Committee. “It’s a risk.”

Madden said for the 2007 biennial budget, legislators added about $240 million in funding for treatment, probation and parole programs, allowing the state to save the $600 million it would have had to invest in the prison system.

“It’s smart to divert [some criminals] from prisons, where they cost us a lot of money, to communities where they cost us a lot less money,” Madden said. “They can do wonderful things, they can be taxpayers instead of tax burdens.”

Madden attributes the success of the reforms, which he developed alongside Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, to helping decrease Texas’ prison population for the first time in years, even though it has started to tick up recently.

“I’m guardedly optimistic that the leadership and a majority of the Legislature knows how successful the rehabilitation [program] has become,” said Whitmire, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. “It’s reduced recidivism, it’s enhanced public safety and it’s very
cost effective.”

Whitmire said he hoped the program’s success would protect it from being individually singled out by the Legislature for additional cuts. He also said public safety should be exempt from the budget cutting process.

The 2007 reforms created intermediate sanction facilities for individuals who violate their probation or parole for nonviolent offenses, such as drug or alcohol abuse. These facilities provide a less expensive alternative to prison and a place where a parolee’s supervising officer can intervene before problems worsen.

“A lot of the violations are related to substance abuse problems,” said Ana Yánez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. “People who have a substance abuse problem will relapse. [Intermediate sanction facilities] are a part of the progressive sanctions continuum that aim to address the root causes of criminal behavior. It’s for [probation violations] that aren’t considered public safety threats.”

Correa said that cutting spending on the diversion, treatment and counselling programs will increase the rate of probation revocations, which will increase the rate of growth in the prison population, dramatically increasing costs to the state over the long term.
 

The state budget deficit could force the Texas Youth Commission, the state juvenile corrections agency, to substantially lower the costs of providing services — which may force layoffs and facility closures. The news comes after the agency, which was rocked by a series of child sex-abuse scandals that became public in 2007, received high marks earlier this month from a Sunset Advisory Commission staff report as well as an internal evaluation. “The biggest costs you have are personnel and facilities,” said state Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano, vice chairman of the House Corrections Committee. “They will get the biggest look as we cut back on the number of youth there.” The population of children in TYC custody has declined from more than 5,000 to about 1,500 since the abuse scandals came to light, while the agency still maintains the facilities and staff from when it had significantly more children in its care. Madden said the agency would have to look seriously at cutting the number of facilities the agency maintains to house children. Longtime critics of the commission said neither report addressed the fundamental issues facing the agency. “The jury is still out on TYC,” said Texas state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. “We will always need a juvenile corrections commission, but their mission will be defined by the need.” Whitmire said neither the internal report or the Sunset review addressed the problems of urban youth sent to remote rural locations and minimal health and educational services. During the last legislative session, the Legislature granted about $60,000 a child per year to probation departments in urban communities to see if services could be provided more effectively — significantly less than the $130,000 spent per year on each child in TYC custody. “If you gave the juvenile probation department additional money, you could keep more kids in their community, where they are close to their families, the courts and the services they need,” Whitmire said. “Even though TYC may or may not continue, it will continue to be downsized and will probably house just those the community wouldn’t want because of the nature of their crime.” More than 300 children currently in TYC custody will eventually end up in the adult criminal justice system because of the nature of their crime. Child advocates have long pressed for combining the TYC and the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission into one agency, the Sunset Commission staff report recommended that TYC remain its own agency but should be downsized to reflect the fact it is caring for fewer children. Child advocates warn that legislators must focus on the impact that budget cuts will have on the children who are in either TYC or the juvenile probation system. “We need to focus on the ramifications of the budget shortfall on the children, if we don’t do that and the funding goes away, then what do they have to work with?” said Ana Yánez-Correa, executive director of Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. “Basically, the children can be put at risk by not giving them the resources that they need.”