Around the Texas Capitol: Elections, hearings and school safety

By Shayne Woodard and J Pete Laney, TAD Governmental Affairs

Summer hasn’t yet slowed the action at the Texas Capitol. Here’s a look at the latest activity.

Primary election wrap up

Both political parties in Texas held their runoff elections on May 22. The only statewide runoff was the Democratic gubernatorial nominee race between Lupe Valdez and Andrew White to take on incumbent Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. After see-sawing back and forth all night, Valdez pulled away and will challenge Abbott in the November general election.

There were also 15 runoffs for seats in the Texas Legislature and 17 runoffs for the U.S. House of Representatives. In the Texas House, business community-backed candidates dominated well-funded Empower Texas/Tea Party-backed candidates. Millions of dollars were reportedly spent in these runoffs by Empower Texas, and it appears they have nothing to show for it in the Texas House. As House Speaker Joe Straus was quoted following the election, “Once again, Republican primary voters have shown overwhelming support for responsible candidates who will put their communities first.”

“Austin insiders” attempting to run for open seat congressional seats were all defeated except former Ted Cruz Chief of Staff Chip Roy, who won the nomination to replace Lamar Smith in the Austin area, and State Rep. Lance Gooden, who received the Republican nominee to replace retiring Jeb Hensarling in the northeast part of the state.

Welcome Texas’ newest legislator

On May 31, Ben Leman (R-Brenham), former Grimes County Judge, was sworn in as the newest member of the Texas House, representing House District 13. He is replacing Rep. Leighton Schubert (R-Caldwell), who resigned effective Feb. 4. He will serve this unexpired term through the end of 2017. Leman also won the Republican primary run-off on May 22, meaning he will be on the ballot in November for a full legislative term against Retired Army Col. Cecil Webster, a Democrat from Carmine.

School safety and security

The devastating shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, has certainly grabbed a lot of attention, including from all our policymakers. Gov. Greg Abbott hosted three roundtable sessions in May to generate solutions to improve safety and security in Texas schools and communities.

The roundtables involved participants from across Texas, including parents, teachers, students, legislators, school administrators, interest groups that advocate for and against further gun regulations, and experts on a number of issues such as school safety, mental health, law enforcement and bullying. Also included were victims, educators and family members from Santa Fe and Sutherland Springs, two areas that have recently witnessed mass shootings.

Following the roundtables, Abbott unveiled his School and Firearm Safety Action Plan. The plan contains 40 recommendations and includes proposals that call for increasing law enforcement presence at schools, strengthening existing campus security programs, enhancing firearm safety, providing mental health evaluations to identify students at risk of harming others, and other proposals. The governor said, “This plan is a starting point, not an ending place. It provides strategies that can be used before the next school year begins to keep our students safe when they return to school. This plan will make our schools safer and our communities safer.”

Abbott also asked Texas Senate and House leaders to issue an interim charge to consider the merits of a “red flag” law allowing law enforcement, family member, school employee or district attorney to file a petition seeking the removal of firearms from a potentially dangerous person, only after legal due process is provided. The recommendations announced by the governor identify nearly $110 million in total funding, including $70 million that is or will soon be available to begin implementing the recommendations. Additionally, the governor identified a specific need for $30 million that he will work with the Legislature to fund next session. See Abbott’s full recommendations here.

Texas Senate weighs in on school safety

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick responded to Abbott’s plan by appointing a nine-member Senate Select Committee to address the school violence and school security interim charges requested by the governor and additional issues included in the governor’s report.

“I have worked closely with Governor Abbott in developing his extensive proposal,” Patrick said. “I am grateful for the Governor’s rapid response immediately following the Santa Fe school shooting as well as his leadership on this critical issue.”

The Senate Select Committee on School Violence includes Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), chair; Joan Huffman (R-Houston), vice chair; Don Huffines (R-Dallas); Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown); Kelly Hancock (R-North Richland Hills); Royce West (D-Dallas); Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D-Brownsville); Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe); and John Whitmire (D-Houston). The lieutenant governor has asked the select committee to finish their work by the first week of August.

Patrick also has said he would withdraw his support for a Texas film and video game incentives program if it funded depictions of violence, blaming school shootings on a “culture where we’ve devalued life.”

House Committee on Land & Resource Management holds hearing on eminent domain

The Texas House Land and Resource Management Committee met in Houston on May 9 to take up its interim charges:

Witnesses included representatives of Texas Department of Transportation, Harris County, Texas Wildlife Association, Coalition for Critical Infrastructure, Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, Texas Farm Bureau, Texans Against High Speed Rail, South Texas Property Rights Association, Association of Electric Companies of Texas, Texas Oil and Gas Association and Texas Pipeline Association.