Well, we thought this might be a Groundhog Day session—you know, same song, different verse, hit the snooze button and go back to sleep—but recent events indicate that will not be the case. We suggest you take a seat, move all sharp objects away from your easy reach, and read on for details.
Raises for me but not for thee
Apparently, this is the new position of the Texas judiciary this session when it comes to judicial pay raises.
If you recall, we previously told you that the initial House budget includes funding for a 10-percent raise of the judicial benchmark salary (from $140,000 to $154,000), including funding for other officials whose salaries are linked to that benchmark, like appellate judges and elected prosecutors. The estimated cost for that House measure was about $30 million for the biennium. In contrast, the Senate’s initial proposal included no salary increase. But this week in the Senate Finance Committee, Chief Justice Hecht and the Office of Court Administration (OCA) expressed support for an entirely new judicial salary structure that would maintain the current judicial benchmark salary ($140,000) to which many of you are tied while granting district and appellate judges three 10-percent longevity raises for every four years of service over their first 12 years in office. Just coincidentally, these increases would also cost approximately $30 million for the biennium—the same as the proposed across-the-board increase in the House budget—but only members of the judiciary would benefit from this new plan. As described in the hearing, this proposal would go into effect on September 1, 2019, and grant longer-tenured district judges an immediate raise of up to $42,000 (from $140,000 to $182,000), while pulling up the ladder and leaving nothing for anyone else—including district attorneys (both salary or retirement), county attorneys (through their state supplement), and county court judges (as near as we can tell—we are not experts on their salaries, but ask your local ones to see if they agree). And if we are reading this proposal correctly, the plan tops out just north of $220,000 for a chief justice of the state supreme court with more than twelve years of experience, which comes out to be a $50,000/year bump.
Based on the brief explanation at the hearing, it is clear that one of the factors leading to the creation of this hybrid system is a desire to avoid the “bad optics” of legislators increasing their own retirements by increasing the judicial benchmark salary. As proposed, this new scheme cooked up by our friends at OCA would keep that benchmark figure the same for legislators (and elected district attorneys)—perhaps in perpetuity—while district and appellate court judges could get periodic, automatic raises. This helps those judges, but it will make it even more difficult in the future for the legislature to raise the benchmark starting district judge salary to which everyone else is tied. OCA director David Slayton testified at this week’s hearing that he had recently shared the new proposal with the various “judiciary groups” and they had all provided positive feedback to him. (We bet they did!) Needless to say, neither you—nor we—were on that distribution list, but you can now consider yourself on notice. As for our initial “hot take” on the judges’ plan, well, let’s just say that it appears to throw 40 years of progress and parity under the Professional Prosecutors Act (PPA) out the window, but we’ll have more on that in the coming weeks as we gain more clarity on this issue.
Meanwhile … what’s next?
First, read the details of this new funding mechanism being proposed by the judiciary by checking out the filed version of SB 387 by Huffman (R-Houston)—however, we will warn you ahead of time that it is a very obtuse bill that may not make much sense unless you are already schooled in the finer points of judicial compensation and retirement. After that, you can watch the archived video of the relevant committee discussions held earlier this week by clicking on http://tlcsenate.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?clip_id=13754 and fast-forwarding to the 17:30 mark; the discussion lasts about five minutes. (And if you need further explanations of how we think this will work, call Rob Kepple after reading the bill and watching the video).
Your next step should be to take a deep breath and not do anything rash. Remember, this idea has only recently been made public, and most of your legislators probably don’t even know about it yet, so venting to them won’t do much good at this point. But if you do want to make them aware that this is what the Texas Judicial Council has apparently decided to push this session, as well as any initial concerns you might have about it, please be our guest.
Third, consider coming to Austin to get more involved in the legislature’s deliberations over this issue. For more details on how to do that, see the entry at the end of this update.
And last, note that we will soon be convening a meeting of TDCAA’s Legislative Committee, which now has something new on its plate besides working on a fix for assistant prosecutor longevity pay. Look for more information on that in weeks to come.
Other budget news
Speaking of longevity pay, it wasn’t all bad news in the Senate Finance Committee this week; in fact, there was positive movement on several other fronts:
- Senators Joan Huffman (R-Houston), Chuy Hinojosa (D-McAllen), and Royce West (D-Dallas) all expressed support for finding a new, more sustainable source of revenue for assistant prosecutor longevity pay (although no further commitments or details were promised);
- As previously reported, the Senate wants to increase DPS lab capacity by hiring 122 new full-time equivalent employees (FTEs) to process rape kits and general backlogs without charging “user fees” from local submitting agencies; and
- Sen. Huffman (R-Houston) let on that she is working on a bill that would repeal and replace the Driver Responsibility Program (DRP), which has been a thorn in everyone’s side for more than 15 years now.
Meanwhile, the House Appropriations Committee has started its general review of its own initial budget proposals. The various subject matter of those hearings in the House will lag a week or two behind those of its Senate counterpart, so we should get a better grasp on the benchmark salary issue and other items when they come up in the House Appropriations Committee in the weeks to come.
New bills to watch
As of two days ago, we are tracking 330 (28%) of the 1,172 bills filed to date. Here is another entry highlighting 10 interesting bills (out of several hundred) filed in the past week or so:
HB 1076 by White, expanding non-disclosure rights to offenders convicted of state jail felonies
HB 1086 by Guillen, increasing the punishment range for intox assault and intox manslaughter
HB 1088 by Geren, enhancing certain habitual misdemeanor offenses into state jail felonies
HB 1127 by Stucky, authorizing judges to carry in 30.06 gun-free zones
HB 1139 by S. Thompson, creating a framework for determining intellectual disability in capital cases
SB 472 by Hughes, creating exceptions to criminal trespass for certain gun-holders
SB 485 by Hughes, limiting government access to and maintenance of biometric identifiers
SB 494 by Huffman, revising certain open meetings/records laws during natural disasters
SB 495 by Hughes, creating victim-offender mediation programs for certain criminal matters
SB 523 by Hinojosa, limiting the denial of occupational licenses to certain offenders
To read any bill, go to https://capitol.texas.gov/, enter the bill number in the appropriate field, and click “go”—then on the subsequent webpage, select the tab at the top of the page for the information (history, bill text, actions, authors, etc.) you want. And as always, you can contact Shannon or Rob if you are having trouble finding the information you seek.
So much news comes at us so fast during the session that it’s hard for us to summarize everything for you, but we’re going to try out a new section for these updates that will aggregate some news you might useful. Click on any stories below for more details, and let us know if you like this new feature! Here goes:
- The Big Three announce a property tax cap plan and your local commissioners probably won’t like it.
- Podcast interview about criminal justice reform with new House Criminal Jurisprudence Chairwoman Nicole Collier (D-Fort Worth) and Right on Crime director Marc Levin.
- “Inside the Mind of Eric Williams,” the killer of two Kaufman County prosecutors.
Governor Abbott is scheduled to give his State of the State address on Tuesday morning, a newsworthy event that may get snowed under by the attention given to the President’s (delayed) State of the Union speech later that evening. However, the former address is likely to have a much more direct impact on your daily work than the latter because the State of the State is traditionally when the governor announces his “emergency items,” a designation that allows the legislature to dispense with constitutional limitations on debate and start moving bills on those chosen topics. The conventional wisdom in Austin is that school finance, property taxes, and election fraud will be among the topics placed in this legislative express lane, but anything could be in play.
The day after the governor’s address, Chief Justice Hecht will deliver his State of the Judiciary address to the combined chambers of the legislature. We’ll be sure to let you know what he suggests as his priority items at that time (besides pay raises, of course). Elsewhere, committees will start to post notice for their organizational meetings (which does not imply action, but merely some getting-to-know-each-other gatherings that accord with their own open meetings rules), and bill filings will continue to increase.
On that latter note, let us remind you: Even though the official bill-filing deadline for most bills in Friday, March 8 (the 60th day of the session), bills filed that late rarely pass. If you really want to pass something, a more realistic deadline for getting your bill idea in a legislator’s hand in time to get an officially-drafted version back from the Legislative Council is somewhere around Valentine’s Day. In other words, get a legislator to agree to file your bill in the next two weeks or don’t bother.
Legislative rotation sign-up
To date, we’ve only had about a dozen elected prosecutors indicate an interest in coming to Austin this session, but we’re betting that might change in light of some of the information detailed above. If you find yourself suddenly more interested in the legislative process, please contact Shannon for details on how to get involved. We have several slots available for prosecutors to come to Austin and help craft the laws and appropriations that directly impact you, so check your calendar and find a good time to come to Austin.
Quotes of the Week
“I think we all agree that we don’t want these hard-working people to suffer a pay cut.”
—State Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), during the Senate Finance Committee’s discussion of where to find a new, permanent source of funding for assistant prosecutor longevity pay.
“I think it’s immoral to require a district attorney to be a fee collector to keep my doors open. The fact that I have to collect a fee from somebody I’m prosecuting and putting on probation, I shouldn’t have to be put in that spot. My job should be public safety and applying facts to law.”
— Steve Kunzweiler, Tulsa County (OK) District Attorney, complaining about that state’s partial funding of local prosecutors’ offices through a direct fee-for-services collection system. [See, someone always has it worse than you!]
“I’m friends with both. … We all wish we weren’t having this discussion.”
—State Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), declining to comment on the recent kerfuffle involving Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) and State Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo).
“The fact that some fringe groups can’t count to five for a nine-member committee is really not my problem.”
—Speaker Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton), in a barbed retort on his Facebook page responding to criticism from (unnamed) gun rights groups that have criticized his appointment of Democrats to chair the two House committees that oversee gun-related legislation; both committees have a one-vote majority of Republican members.
“Quite frankly, the lobbyists are damn lucky to have a chance to invest in a great business and they’re the ones gaining the advantage, not me.”
—Speaker Bonnen, in response to questions about registered lobbyists who are investors in the Pearland bank he runs back home.
“The way that Texas statute is set up, the attorney general’s office does not have original jurisdiction on these criminal matters such as the issues facing the church. We have to rely on local district attorneys from the 254 counties in our state to either refer the case to us or ask for our assistance.”
—Marc Rylander, spokesman for the Office of the Attorney General, explaining why that office is not following certain other states’ attorneys general in investigating past complaints of sexual abuse made against Catholic clergy.
“I’m a mad DA, which is what victims need. We don’t need a DA who’s looking for forgiveness.”
—Montgomery County DA Brett Ligon, explaining his mindset in pursuing allegations of sexual abuse at a church at which he used to be a parishioner.
“[It’s] the crystal meth of newsrooms.”
—David Von Drehle, Washington Post columnist, in an article about the negative impact that Twitter is having on the journalism profession.
“The number one reason kids die is neglect. It’s because the parents are impaired and not providing adequate supervision.” —Melinda Gushwa of the Simmons College (MA) School of Social Work, whose job involves analyzing reports of child fatalities, as quoted in an article about drug-addicted mothers.
“I realized that I was exhausted from knowing people only because of the terrible things that befall them. That is the nature of my job. … I am incredibly proud to have dedicated a career to seeking justice for others. But life is too short to spend it all in the darkness. I am excited about stepping into the light and enjoying the beauty of life with my family and friends.”
—Patrick Wilson, Ellis County & District Attorney (and TDCAA board member), in his public statement announcing he will not run for re-election in 2020.