Interim Recap: July 2018

            Hot enough for ya?

 

Reading the state budget tea leaves

            Earlier this month the comptroller gave a presentation to the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) that may have been misinterpreted by some who read about it in the local fish wraps, so let us clear up some potential misconceptions.

            It is true that recent tax collections have exceeded the (appropriately conservative) estimates made by Comptroller Hegar’s office last year, thanks mostly to growth in the oil and gas industry. However, the majority of these gains are not available for general revenue spending; instead, state law requires that they be diverted to the state’s highway fund or its rainy day fund—the latter of which could top $13 billion by the time the next legislature convenes in six months. And when they do convene, one of the first things the budget-writers will have to do is direct much of the remaining new tax revenue to pay off the Medicaid bills from FY 2018-19 that they “floated” last session to balance that budget. And on top of that, there will be other, smaller catch-up items from FY 2018-19 that must be covered, not to mention the Hurricane Harvey bills that will come due. So, in short, the lesson to take away from the comptroller’s recent testimony to the LBB is that things are not great, but they could be worse, and now it’s time to pray that Texas isn’t hit by another hurricane or a trade war that turns off the tax tap currently filling our coffers. Barring tragedies like that, the remaining budget hole may be small enough for them to use more “smoke and mirrors” to balance the FY 2020-21 budget without many additional cuts—but anyone looking for new funding for their pet project will be facing long, long odds.

 

Interim committee hearing recaps

            The Senate Select Committee on Violence in Schools and School Security held its final hearing earlier this week and took testimony on the controversial topic of extreme risk protective orders, also known as “red flag” laws. An increasing number of states have enacted such laws (including Florida, in the wake of the high school mass shooting in Parkland), often with the tacit or overt support of pro-gun groups like the NRA, but not so here in Texas, where gun rights groups have come out strongly against creating any new legal mechanisms for temporarily suspending someone’s firearm rights because of their threatening behavior. It took few capitol observers by surprise when, only a few hours after the final committee hearing, Lt. Gov. Patrick made official what many had already suspected: Any extreme risk protective order bill is a dead letter in 2019. Less clear, however, is the potential fate of legislation to increase penalties for making firearms available to children. That is an idea that several prosecutors would like to see addressed this session, and we will learn more about the prospects of such legislation later this year when various committees’ interim reports are issued.

            Elsewhere … the House Agriculture and Livestock Committee heard testimony from the industrial hemp industry encouraging the legalization of their wonder plant (“it slices, it dices, it makes Julienne fries—but please don’t call it dope”) … and, well, that’s about it, thankfully—it’s too hot in Austin to be holding many hearings right now!

 

Future interim hearings

            Relevant hearings posted so far for August and September (with links to official notices) include:
 

House Select Committee on Opioids & Substance Abuse (Part I)
Tuesday, August 7, at 10:00 a.m., State Capitol Extension Room E2.012
CHARGES: Impact of substance abuse on those in the criminal and juvenile justice systems and the CPS system; treatment availability; alternatives to incarceration; specialty courts. (Invited testimony only.)
 

House Select Committee on Opioids & Substance Abuse (Part II)
Wednesday, August 8, at 9:00 a.m., State Capitol Extension Room E2.012
The committee will take public testimony on previously-considered charges (list available here).
 

House Human Services Committee
Thursday, August 9, at 9:00 a.m., State Capital Extension Room E1.030
CHARGE: CPS-involved children/guardians with mental illness or substance use disorders.
 

House Judiciary & Civil Jurisprudence Committee
Tuesday, August 14, at 1:00 p.m., State Capitol Extension Room E2.026
CHARGES: Specialty courts; jurisdictional thresholds of district/county/justice courts; guardianships.
 

Senate Transportation Committee
Monday, August 27, at 10:00 a.m., State Capitol Extension Room E1.016
CHARGE: Toll road penalties.
 

Senate State Affairs Committee
Monday, September 10, at 1:00 p.m., State Senate Chamber
CHARGES: Court costs and fees (appropriateness, collections, etc.); price-gouging during disasters; adequacy of current penalties for looting during disasters.
 

If you have questions about any of these hearings, please contact Shannon for more details.

 

Personnel changes under the Pink Dome

            For those of you with legislative business in Austin, we have some important staff changes to report. Several prosecutors have recently turned in their badges and taken jobs at the capitol, including:

  • Former Travis County and Harris County Asst. DA Justin Wood, who is now the policy director for Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire;
  • Former McLennan County and Limestone County Asst. DA Brody Burks, who is now a criminal justice policy advisor to Governor Greg Abbott; and
  • Former Lubbock County Asst. CDA Aaron Moncibaiz, who will serve as a criminal justice policy advisor to Lt. Governor Dan Patrick starting in August.

In addition, Aaron will be working under former Tarrant County Asst. CDA Darrell Davila, who was recently promoted by Lt. Governor Patrick to be his chief of staff. We congratulate all of these former TDCAA members on their new positions, and we encourage any of you who know them to do the same. It’s always nice to see friendly faces at the capitol!

 

Surveys here, surveys there, surveys everywhere

            Is anyone getting inundated with survey requests lately? It seems like everyone wants to question prosecutors about their own pet issues, from diversion programs to court collections to human trafficking initiatives to child advocacy centers and more. And this trend is likely to increase come election time now that outfits like the ACLU are conducting state-by-state surveys seeking pledges from local prosecutor candidates to work on their preferred