AUSTIN, Texas — From new poll numbers to bills moving forward to the tension over the Secretary of State's confirmation, a lot happened in Texas politics this week. Ross Ramsey, executive editor and co-founder of The Texas Tribune, sat down with Political Reporter Ashley Goudeau to discuss the issues.
Ashley Goudeau: I think one of the big things that has people talking is Secretary of State David Whitley. For people who aren't as familiar with this, they're not following this, why all the controversy over him?
Ross Ramsey: "So, he's appointed secretary of state in mid-December by the governor. He's worked for Governor Abbott for a long time in the Governor's Office and in the [Attorney General's] Office. So, a while. And the secretary of state in Texas is the chief election officer. And toward the end of January, they put out this list of almost 100,000 Texans who they said were on the records as registering to vote, some of them as having voted, and were also on other state records as non-citizens at some point. And the suggestion was that these people ought to be checked out because they might be non-citizens voting. Which is quite a leap from a list that's got, you know, some old names and some new names, all kinds of stuff. It quickly escalated because a couple of things happened. Attorney General Ken Paxton flagged it and said 'we have to make sure that non-citizens are not voting.' The president of the United States tweeted it. But it quickly became apparent that this list was faulty. And at least 25,000, and probably more of the names on it, shouldn't have been on it. So the sate sends it down to all these county clerks all over the state, they start checking it, they get mad at the state and right in the middle of this, it's time for the Senate to consider confirmation of David Whitley's nomination. So, they come back in, they gave him a very hard time in a hearing in early February. it looked like he was busted. But this week, the committee popped up and voted him out and sent him to the full Senate. So a party-line vote in the Committee four to three. Whitley's on his way to the Senate, where it looks like he's got quite an obstacle course."
Goudeau: Let's take one step back. Twenty-four hours, not even 24 hours before that vote happened in the committee, a federal judge put out an order because there are three lawsuits over this list.
Ramsey: "Right. He said you can't use this list to purge voters from the rolls. You need to, he basically said 'go home and do your homework' and get this list out. It's probably the case that something, there's somebody on that list that ought to be on that list. You know, maybe they're a non-citizen and they were allowed to register to vote. Maybe they even voted. But you ought to know that before you start making announcements.
Goudeau: I think it was particularly interesting the judge wrote, he made a mess.
Ramsey: "He did make a mess. The question here is whether you told all the people who shouldn't be on the list, whether just raising a hammer over their heads suppresses votes. And whether it tells other people, you know they're really looking at these lists hard and maybe you should think twice before you're voting, and the Democrats and some of the attorneys for minority groups say 'this is voter suppression on behalf of the State, they're trying to get people not to vote.' You're not supposed to be doing that."
Goudeau: Senator Kirk Watson seemed particularly upset and one of the things that he brought up during the vote was he asked him during his hearing will you at least reach out to the counties and say, 'Hey, don't take anyone off the list yet until you figure this out.' And the secretary of state said, 'No, I will not do that.' And then a judge orders him to do that very thing.
Ramsey: "So, David Whitley's stuck between I'm sorry and I won't retract what I did, right, so that's where he gets caught. And that's how he goes into the Senate. So the way the Senate works, you have to have two-thirds of the Senators vote to approve a nomination, to confirm a nomination. There are, the Republicans don't have two-thirds."
Goudeau: Obviously, the governor wants his appointee, he wants his pick confirmed. So do you think there's going to be some secrecy, some drama on the floor where they're constantly counting how many Senators are present to try to rush this vote through?
Ramsey: "You know, it depends on whether the Senate wants to do that. There's a certain amount of legislative violence in that. You know, you're basically taking advantage of a situation and you could, you know, irk some Senators doing that and you've got some big votes coming up in this session. You've going to ask these same senators to vote on your property tax bill and on your teacher pay raise bill and on your school finance bill and on this thing and that thing. And the question in the Senate for the lieutenant governor and for other senators is going to be 'do we want to start a fight over the governor's appointment that might cost us over here, or is that really worth it?' The bias of the Senate is to approve a governor's appointees but on this one there's a voting rights question, so the Democrats are right now united against it."
Goudeau: You mentioned that property tax bill, so let's talk a little bit about it. SB2, also known as HB2, had some movement this week the House held a committee, the Ways and Means Committee held a hearing on it. And what also was interesting was the Quinnipiac Poll came out saying that 77 percent of likely Texas voters support this idea of reducing the rollback rate to 2.5 percent. We always throw those terms out there, the rollback rate, some people don't know what exactly that means, so first explain what this idea is with the bill.
Ross Ramsey: "Sure, so the way they bill's proposed right now, if a city or county or school district's property tax revenue goes up more than two-and-a-half percent, it would automatically trigger a vote. So voters would have to approve any increase about two-and-a-half percent. Now there's a bunch of legislative conversation about two-and-a-half percent. Is that the right number? Should it be three? Should it be three-and-a-half? What should that be, but that's the basic idea. And like you said, voters in Texas really like that idea. 'Yeah, if they're going to raise my property taxes, I want a say in that.' It would put the cities and the counties in a position of having to justify increases of that size. They say it would constrain them and make it more difficult to run their cities, their counties, their hospital districts. That's the fight."
Goudeau: This bill has already been voted out of the Senate committee and yet it's just sitting there. They technically can vote on it because it was on the governor's emergency items, why is it sitting there?
Ramsey: "Two-and-a-half percent is too low. If you talk to the legislators and you walk around and you say, 'What do you think about this,' they go, 'I like this idea, I don't know about two-and-a-half percent.' And right after the Senate committee voted it out or right about the time they did, before they sent it to the Senate, the House Appropriations chairman, John Zerwas of Richmond out by Houston, said, 'You know, I don't know about two-and-a-half percent.' He's a Republican. 'I don't know about two-and-a-half percent that's a little low,' and that was kind of a signal to the House they could head for the hills on that number. So the senators are talking around and we'll see what number comes out. I think this bill is still moving, I'm not sure it's moving at two-and-a-half percent."
Goudeau: This is exactly the problem they had last session with getting something like this out.
Ramsey: "Last year, or two years ago, the House's number was six percent, the Senate's number was four percent and somehow they couldn't find five percent. There's some conversation that five percent may be the magic number at the end of this process, we'll just have to see how it goes."
Goudeau: The other big thing that happened this week was for teachers, the bill to give them $5,000 raises, permanent $5,000 raises was voted out of committee.
Ramsey: "Voted out of the Senate committee unanimously, out of Senate Finance. Democrats, Republicans, everybody was for it. It's on its way to the Senate. It's gonna hit a House idea that teacher pay raises ought to be controlled by the local school districts and ought to be based on merit. So good teachers get more than bad teachers. And you know, teachers that will teach in tough schools get a little more than teachers who will teach in easy schools."
Goudeau: Overall, things are really starting to ramp up. We're approaching that 60-day mark where they can vote on anything.
Ramsey: "Yeah, the sessions always start a little bit slowly but then they hit a moment, it'll be March 8 this time, which is that 60th day, it's a Friday. And it'll ramp up. You know, even in anticipation of that, we've been seeing bill filings just go straight up. We're around 3,000 bills in the House. They'll file 5,000 or 6,000 bills. They'll only pass but 1,400 or 1,500 of them and they'll only have about 12 weeks to do it. It will happen fast."