Author Archives: Shannon Najmabadi

He thought he had a free court-appointed lawyer. Then he got a bill for $10,000

The Hill County Courthouse in Hillsboro.

After Kelly Unterburger and his girlfriend were pulled over for speeding in 2011, a state trooper searched the car and found what was described in court documents as a bag dusted with white powder. Unterburger was arrested for possessing less than a gram of a controlled substance and brought before a North Texas court.

The U.S. Constitution says people too poor to afford a lawyer should be appointed one paid for by taxpayers. And Unterburger — who said he was wrongly accused — was told he would be. So he was surprised when, years later, a bill arrived saying he owed thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees.

“If I’d known they were going to charge me,” he said, “I would have spent more time screening lawyers.”

In Texas and across the country, defendants are sometimes asked to repay part or all of the costs of their court-appointed lawyer through a practice called recoupment. Texas counties recouped more than $11 million from poor defendants in 2016, 4.5 percent of the total amount spent on indigent defense statewide.

Critics argue the practice can seem “untoward, to say you’re given this [constitutional] right but we’re going to charge you for it,” said Beth Colgan, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law. But proponents say it’s sound public policy and a way to tamp down on a ceiling-less mandate borne largely by local taxpayers.

Since 2001, when Texas drastically revamped its public defense system, the costs of assigning lawyers to poor defendants has skyrocketed, from $91.4 million to nearly $248 million in 2016. County coffers have paid the most. Last year, the state allotted around $32 million to indigent defense; counties together paid $216 million, 87 percent of the overall amount.

“Small, economically disadvantaged rural counties like Hill County, we have limited budgets, and we spend a significant amount of money on indigent defense,” said David Holmes, the county attorney there. It “is just and right to ask that if you offend the laws of the state or victimize citizens of this county – and the taxpayers of the county provide you with a lawyer that you don’t have to pay for up front – if you at some point have the ability to do that, you ought to do it.”

Depending on the court, defendants in Texas can be deemed indigent if their income is less than $49,200 for a family of four.

Some defendants are told at the outset of their case that they may be liable for their court-appointed lawyers’ costs. But Unterburger says he wasn’t. He says he didn’t know what seemed like the guarantee of a free lawyer could be rescinded. And he was especially shocked when the bill came in 2014, and it said he owed nearly $10,000.

Policies differ from court to court

Data maintained by the Texas Indigent Defense Commission shows wild variation in how much money Texas counties recoup from poor defendants. Johnson County, where Unterburger was charged, recouped nearly 15 percent of the money it spent on indigent defense last year. According to the data, Andrews County made back nearly 70 percent of its public defense costs in 2016, while 51 others recouped nothing at all.

County-to-county discrepancies aren’t unique to Texas, Colgan said. Recoupment policies differ from court to court but are often part of a “package of economic sanctions” tied to a case’s resolution, she said. Lawyer’s fees are sometimes included in plea deals or listed as a line item alongside administrative court costs that defendants are asked to pay at sentencing.

Colgan, who has researched recoupment policies in different states, said some jurisdictions use a flat fee to make back lawyer’s fees, while “in other places, it’s targeted at the amount of expenses actually incurred.”

Before levying lawyer’s fees, the court is supposed to determine that a defendant can afford to pay them. Critics say that determination does not always happen in a formal way, and they worry defendants may waive their right to counsel if they think they’ll receive a bill for that representation later.

On average, attorneys appointed by Texas courts are paid $200 for a misdemeanor case and $600 for a non-capital felony, said Wesley Shackelford, the Texas Indigent Defense Commission’s interim executive director. Cases that go to trial, like Unterburger’s, can incur significantly higher costs.

With the help of an attorney at the Texas Fair Defense Project, Unterburger was able to have the nearly $10,000 bill dropped.

Unterburger spent about three years imprisoned as he took his case to trial, and then appealed the guilty verdict.

“I didn’t even know that’s a law,” said Unterburger, who now does irrigation and landscaping work. “I worked really hard to stay up with everything,” including paying hundreds of dollars in probation fees.

“It doesn’t seem like it’d be fair,” he said of the recoupment practice.

Emily Gerrick, the lawyer who assisted him, says she argued the court had made a mistake in ordering the $10,000 bill. But “for a lot of people they really aren’t able to challenge it, because they don’t have a lawyer to help them or the court is just going to refuse.”

Donnie Yandell, Caprock Regional Chief Public Defender, said counties’ efforts to receive reimbursement for lawyers’ costs are often fruitless.

“Judges tell you about [setting up] payment plans for these people,” said Yandell, who is based in Lubbock. “You don’t get any more money out of them.” Many of his clients “scrape by,” and “just don’t have the money to start out with.” He added, “You can’t get blood out of a turnip.”

A new state law

A state law that went into effect Sept. 1 extends the period during which defendants can be asked to repay their lawyer’s bill. While that window used to close at sentencing, defendants can now have their financial status re-evaluated at any point while they serve out their sentence. Whether in jail, prison or on probation, it’s a period that sometimes lasts years.

Shackelford says the law has “safeguards” to protect defendants’ due process rights. Judges must first provide defendants with written notice that they’re on the line for lawyer’s fees and offer them a chance to rebut with evidence their ability to pay.

The law was enacted in “an effort to protect the collateral victims of crime: that being the law-abiding, taxpaying citizens that are having to absorb all these costs when it was unnecessary,” said Mark Pratt, the district attorney of Hill County, who weighed in on an early version of the legislation.

That rendering of the bill, filed in 2015, failed to pass. State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, authored the 2017 law.

Pratt says if a poor defendant later comes into funds — wins the lottery, say, or gets an inheritance — it makes sense from a public policy standpoint for that person to reimburse the county. The law allows for the reverse, too: If a defendant loses a job while on probation, their financial status can be re-evaluated so they pay less. Defendants can’t be asked to repay more than the county paid.

In a statement, Birdwell said the law was passed “with the simple intent of clarifying that a defendant’s status as indigent can change over time throughout adjudication and serving a sentence.” He added that it “gives judges additional discretion to protect both taxpayers and defendants during the duration of the judicial process.”

Enough precautions have been taken “to ensure that this will be properly used to recover additional funds from those that are able to pay and it’s not used as any form of punishment for those that cannot,” said James Allison, general counsel for the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas. He doesn’t expect the statute will be heavily used and said counties are “not interested in wasting our time and resources pursuing people that can’t pay.”

Allison said increased funding from the state for indigent defense is needed to alleviate the burden on counties. Across the country, Texas ranks among those that spend the least per capita on indigent defense – with most of the funds coming from counties, according to a 2008 National Legal Aid and Defender Association report and a 2010 American Bar Association report respectively.

“I think the idea behind it is a pretty good idea,” Yandell said of the new law. “I just don’t know how well it’s going to be implemented.”

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Perry pursuing policy on coal, nuclear power at odds with Texas record

Secretary of Energy Rick Perry testifies at a Committee on Energy and Commerce hearing in Washington, D.C. on Oct 12, 2017.

An unusual coalition of fossil fuel interests, environmentalists and free-market adherents has criticized a proposal from U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry that would prop up coal and nuclear plants across the country. And some of those familiar with Texas politics are wondering if the Perry that served as state governor for 14 years would have opposed the plan, too.

In a 2011 interview, then-Gov. Perry told blogger and radio host Erick Erickson, “Get rid of the tax loopholes, get rid of all of the subsidies. Let the energy industry get out there and find — the market will find the right energy for us to be using in this country.”

That statement was par the course for Perry, who as governor helped oversee the deregulation of Texas’ electrical sector and has championed competitive markets and opposed federal interference.

But to some, his views have shifted since he became President Donald Trump’s Energy Secretary in March.

“The boot is on the other foot,” Perry said at an event in April. “Are there issues that are so important to the national security of this country that the federal government can intervene on the regulatory side? I’ll suggest to you that there are.”

Perry raised eyebrows in September when he urged the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to give certain fuel sources what amounts to a subsidy, but one borne by consumers rather than the government. And at a hearing on Capitol Hill last week, Perry called the notion that there’s a free market in electrical generation a “fallacy.”

“We subsidize a lot of different energy sources. We subsidize wind energy, we subsidize ethanol, we subsidize solar, we subsidize oil and gas,” Perry said at the hearing. “Government’s picking winners and losers every day,” he said later.

Lawmakers on the committee were quick to point to the disparity between Perry’s current position and those during his tenure leading Texas.

“It seems like with your new effort you are gaming the system and not doing what we did when you were governor in Texas,” U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, said at one point.

U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, warned Perry that he was creating the impression that “you prefer government control over the free markets.”

“We both know that’s a pile of Bevo longhorn poo-poo,” Olson said.

Threat of energy outages

Perry’s proposal says generators that can store 90 days’ worth of fuel onsite — like coal and nuclear plants — should be shored up because they can keep the electric grid running in the event of a disturbance.

Many of these generators face premature retirement, Perry wrote last month. Referencing a 2014 “polar vortex” and the hurricanes that have battered Texas and other coastal areas, he said, “It is time for [FERC] to issue rules to protect the American people from the threat of energy outages.”

If approved, critics say the plan would increase residents’ electricity bills, penalize other sources of energy and signify a break from FERC’s free-market tendencies. Perry has asked the independent commission to make a decision on his recommendation in 60 days — a timeline some say is too fast.

But opponents have taken issue with more than the proposal’s pace. A broad coalition has criticized the plan as an ineffective solution put on too hasty a path. Some criticize it as pollution-causing and backward-looking; others say it amounts to a bailout and argue against government putting its thumb on the scale.

Industrial Energy Consumers of America, a group that represents Koch Industries and is supportive of nuclear and coal power, penned a letter saying the proposal would “distort, if not destroy, competitive wholesale electricity markets.”

Pat Wood, a former chairman of Texas’ Public Utility Commission, expressed his antipathy in more colorful language, likening the plan to a “lovely little Christmas turd” while at an industry conference, according to news reports.

Perry “clearly is acting based on what his boss, Trump, would like him to do,” said Lenae Shirley, a senior director at the Environmental Defense Fund. “When institutes that represent the Koch brothers are aligning with environmentalists on this, that sends a pretty strong message that this is not the right move.”

On the campaign trail, Trump promised to revive the coal industry, and his administration has already dismantled some policies favored by renewable energy advocates.

Even companies that support reforming wholesale electricity markets disagree with the specifics of Perry’s proposal.

“DOE is saying we need to have fuel security in the event of some catastrophic failure of the transportation or natural gas systems,” said Abraham Silverman, vice president and deputy general counsel at NRG Energy, which owns the retail electricity business of Reliant Energy in Houston. “That’s not crazy.”

“That said,” he added, “we are not proponents of bailouts. We’re not proponents of subsidies to targeted generators. We think the DOE was on the right path in highlighting the problems, but the specific proposal that they put forward was, I think, problematic.”

“Good for American energy”

At last week’s hearing, Perry said he’s committed to an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy — and pointed to his “real track record” as governor. “But the wind doesn’t always blow,” he added. “The sun doesn’t always shine. The gas pipelines, they can’t guarantee every day that that supply is going to be there.”

He suggested the Obama administration had been biased toward renewables and, in April, he commissioned a study to see if regulations, mandates or other tax policies are “responsible for forcing the premature retirement of baseload power plants” such as coal and nuclear generators.

That report, which had been highly anticipated by both members of the energy industry and environmentalists, noted 531 “coal generating units” closed across the country between 2002 and 2016 and laid most of the blame for those closures on the “advantaged economics of natural gas-fired generation” — with regulations and rising output from wind and solar energy as lesser factors. The study’s authors did not find that such closures had made the grid unreliable.

That trend has been largely borne out in Texas, where Perry, as governor, helped oversee the deregulation of the state’s electricity market. Under Perry, natural gas production surged thanks to technological advances like hydraulic fracturing, and Texas became the nation’s leader in wind energy generation. Data from the state’s largest grid operator shows wind capacity grew from 116 megawatts in 2000 to more than 11,000 megawatts by 2014.

“If we go back in time, I’m sure we could find a dozen quotes from Gov. Perry very excited about these kinds of developments,” said Chrissy Mann, a senior representative of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

Brandy Marty Marquez, one of the state’s Public Utility commissioners who previously served in the governor’s office as Perry’s chief of staff, said Perry “probably was among the first people to coin the phrase ‘all-of-the-above approach’ because Texas is one of the early adopters of renewable energy, specifically wind.”

While Perry long touted free-market principles as governor, he also championed spending millions in tax subsidies for firms relocating or expanding in Texas, programs critics derided as “corporate welfare.” And as governor, he did push for the permitting of new coal plants while other states were scaling back amid pollution concerns.

But those facilities, or Perry’s lobbying for them, weren’t highlighted in a December 2016 op-ed from a former state regulator about why Perry becoming Trump’s Energy Secretary would be “good for American energy.”

Barry Smitherman, the former chairman of Texas’ Public Utility Commission and Railroad Commision, cited the building of new transmission lines for wind energy, the encouragement of more competition in the electric market and the “shale revolution” as “three particular areas where Perry’s leadership led to significant benefits for working Texans, energy consumers and the broader energy industry.”

Coal plants closing

Marquez said Perry’s proposal is a responsible and reasonable way to approach issues with the grid — and that he’s consistently advocated for a diversified energy portfolio. Anybody surprised by his plan “hasn’t been paying attention,” she said. “He sent it over to FERC so that there can be a transparent dialogue, an open dialogue about it,” she said.

But even if FERC adopts Perry’s plan as is, it would largely not impact nuclear or coal-powered plants in Texas.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s largest grid operator, is not under the purview of FERC. “Only action by the Texas legislature or the [Public Utility Commission] would affect our rate structure,” said Robbie Searcy, an ERCOT spokesperson. Diverse energy sources, she added, have helped ERCOT maintain a reliable system and competitive market.

According to ERCOT data, coal made up 22 percent of the state’s generation capacity last year. But the coming closure of several coal-powered plants in the state has set the stage for wind to overtake coal in Texas’ overall energy mix in 2018, according to Joshua Rhodes, a research fellow at the University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Institute.

Vistra Energy’s subsidiary, Luminant, announced earlier this month that three of its Texas coal plants will shutter next year, if ERCOT gives the okay. In environmental groups’ crosshairs for years, the Monticello, Big Brown and Sandow plants have earned the dubious distinction of being among the “dirtiest” in the country. But the plants succumbed to financial, not activists’, pressure, according to company officials.

“The long-term economic viability of these plants has been in question for some time,” Curt Morgan, president and CEO of Vistra, said in a statement. Because a few of the retiring plants were built in the 1970s, Rhodes said they probably needed some capital investment just to upgrade and maintain the facilities.

If ERCOT determines the plants aren’t needed to keep the state’s energy grid reliable, their retirements could prompt the elimination of more than 800 jobs.

“Coal’s powered America for a long time,” Mann, the environmental advocate said; but the closures align with Perry’s proposal. Natural market forces — and for some, an inclination toward renewable sources — means “coal has to get phased out,” Mann said. “Perry’s report recognizes that and is looking for a way to artificially prop up a dying industry rather than finding ways to help transition communities that have relied on coal.”

Bill Peacock, vice president of research at the conservative-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation, said a better solution is to rid the market of subsidies, rather than adding more. “We support markets as a way to decide which fuel is best to meet the energy needs of America,” he said. “To that extent, we don’t believe in subsidies for wind or solar or coal or nuclear or natural gas. It’s across the board. We’re not trying to pick winners and losers and we don’t think anybody else ought to either.”

Disclosure: The Environmental Defense Fund, NRG Energy, Vistra Energy and the Texas Public Policy Foundation have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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New law allows hunting hogs from hot air balloons, but few balloonists will offer it

Though a new Texas law allows hunters to shoot feral hogs and coyotes from hot air balloons, it’s not easy to find a balloonist offering the activity.

“I have never had a phone call from anybody asking to do this,” said Pat Cannon of Lewisville, spokesman for the Balloon Federation of America. “I think that people have not stopped laughing yet.”

The law went into effect Sept. 1, but state permitters, insurers and balloonists say they haven’t heard of anyone planning to hunt hogs from hot air balloons. They point to factors like visibility and difficulty steering that make the activity hard.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has not granted any of the permits needed for hot air balloon hunting, said Steve Lightfoot, a department spokesman. Rob Schantz of Jacksonville, Florida, who heads one of the country’s few balloon insurance agencies, said no balloonists had asked if the activity could be covered under their policies. His agency will not offer coverage for aerial hunting.

Among other logistical challenges, the balloon’s burners make a “horrendous roaring noise,” Schantz said. “It would scare anything away, and if they had a chance to take a shot, you could shoot somebody’s dog or shoot a person.”

The new law, authored by state Rep. Mark Keough, R-The Woodlands, is just one of Texas legislators’ attempts to curb the feral hog population in the state. Called a menace, the estimated 2 million feral hogs in Texas are responsible for about $400 million in damage each year, and their population would grow rapidly if left unchecked. A “pork-chopper” bill – allowing hogs to be hunted from helicopters – has been on the books since 2011, and state officials have considered poisoning the animals with a lethal pesticide.

Lightfoot said department rules that govern hunting from a helicopter are similar to those for gunning from a hot air balloon. Among them is a requirement that there be an agreement with a landowner permitting aerial hunting on his or her property. Lightfoot said Tuesday the department had received one phone call inquiring about the needed permits, but that none had been issued.

Keough said in a statement the new law “will open a whole new industry towards eliminating the growing population of feral hogs in the State of Texas.” After the measure passed both legislative chambers in May, state Rep. John Cyrier, R-Lockhart, wrote a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott saying it could lead to “future catastrophes” without increased oversight of commercial ballooning.

Judith McGeary, executive director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, said feral hogs pose a very significant problem to farmers and rural communities, as they destroy land and can carry diseases.

“There hasn’t been a good way to control them,” she said. Hunting from a hot air balloon isn’t expected to be a magic bullet, she said, but it seems like a “reasonable additional tool to add.”

But balloonists and pilots point to numerous challenges that make hunting from a hot air balloon difficult, if not impossible.

First, hot air balloons only fly under certain conditions. Wind, clouds, thermals and time of day are taken into account by the balloonist, and aren’t always conducive to hunting. For example, because balloons float on the wind, they couldn’t circle a pack of feral hogs while the hunters tried to shoot them.

“Let’s just assume you have a herd of feral hogs running one way and … they turn left. The balloon can’t turn left,” said Schantz, the insurance underwriter. “The balloon just keeps going and the feral hogs are off on their merry way the other way.”

For similar reasons, balloons would likely be unable to stop to retrieve the carcasses of shot hogs, said Joe Reynolds, a private pilot in Austin. Because the animals can weigh hundreds of pounds, it would also be difficult to hoist them into the balloon’s basket, and they might exceed the balloon’s load limit, said Reynolds.

Ideally, Cannon said, hot air balloon hunting would take place over land that has a large feral hog population, is owned by one person, and is in a fairly rural area – as balloons must fly at higher altitudes over houses and populated zones. A GPS tracker could help balloonists navigate boundaries that demarcate one property from the next, and make notes of where shot feral hogs fall. The landowner or someone else on the ground could pick up the carcasses. 

Still, spotting those property limits from the air can be difficult, Cannon said. If the balloon is accidentally flown over a neighbor’s property, and “somebody points a gun down and shoots and discharges a weapon over that guy’s land,” Cannon said, “he could be prosecuted for that.” Dogs, donkeys or other animals could be mistaken for feral hogs and coyotes from the vantage point of a balloon.

Reynolds, the private pilot, said he’s fielded calls about the activity. But it often becomes immediately apparent “that the reality of it is not going to work.”

“I can’t speak for every balloon pilot in the world,” he added, “but nobody that I’ve talked to is going to try to take any of this on.”

Disclosure: The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Officials are starting to grapple with the costs of Harvey. Here’s what you should know today.

With video of southeast Texas flooding rolling in the background, state emergency workers tackle Hurricane Harvey-related crises at the Texas DPS Emergency Operations Center (EOC) on Sept. 1, 2017. 

As the extent of the damage wrought by Hurricane Harvey becomes apparent, federal and state relief efforts are coming into focus.

The death toll for the storm has reached 50 people, the Houston Chronicle reported on Saturday, and the Texas Department of Public Safety said more than 185,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed by the storm, according to the Washington Post.

President Donald Trump is scheduled to visit Houston on Saturday, where he’s expected to meet with Harvey survivors after being criticized for not doing so while in Corpus Christi and Austin on Tuesday. Houston activists are reportedly planning to protest Trump’s midday visit to a relief center, according to the Chronicle. Saturday’s visit will be Mayor Sylvester Turner’s first opportunity to talk to Trump since Harvey made landfall, the Chronicle said, though the president has communicated regularly with Gov. Greg Abbott.

Trump on Friday called for $7.9 billion in federal assistance, a first installment in what’s expected to be a more expansive relief package, according to the Associated Press. Of that, $7.4 billion would go to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and $450 million to disaster loans for small businesses. The New York Times reported a second request for $6.7 billion would follow.

Abbott said Wednesday he expects the state will need far more than $120 billion, the amount of federal relief provided after Hurricane Katrina, the Post reported. And Turner told CNN Friday, “We need immediately, right now, just for debris removal alone, anywhere between $75 million to $100 million.”

In a message posted to Twitter, U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan said the chamber will “act quickly” on disaster relief funding, with a vote expected to come next week when Congress returns from an August recess. Meanwhile, state lawmakers have set a committee hearing for Thursday to discuss housing needs in the wake of Harvey. Abbott has already said a second special legislative session would not be necessary, and that the state has enough resources to “address the needs between now and the next session.”

Trump has said he plans to donate $1 million of his personal money to Harvey relief. He also has called for Sunday to be a national day of prayer for those impacted by the storm.

Abbott, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick all said they would commit $100,000 through their campaigns to a Harvey relief fund announced by the governor Friday. Patrick added in a message posted to Twitter that he and his wife would make a personal donation of $25,000 to the fund – which Abbott wants raise $100 million for over Labor Day weekend.

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Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick calls city governments the source of “all our problems in America”

After two days of contentious debate and several bills passed, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick congratulates the Senate on what he says was a job well done on July 26, 2017.   The Senate tackled bills on 18 issues, sending them over to the House for consideration in the first-called special session. 

City governments, particularly those led by Democrats, are the source of problems nationwide, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said during a nationally televised interview Friday.

“People are happy with their governments at their state level, they’re not with the city,” said Patrick, a Republican, in an interview with Fox Business Network. He was responding to a question about gubernatorial races.

“Our cities are still controlled by Democrats,” he added. “And where do we have all our problems in America? Not at the state level run by Republicans, but in our cities that are mostly controlled by Democrat mayors and Democrat city council men and women. That’s where you see liberal policies. That’s where you see high taxes. That’s where you see street crime.”

The comments drew a quick response from mayors in Texas. In a message posted to Twitter, Austin Mayor Steve Adler responded, “If it’s wrong to have lower jobless and crime rates than Texas as a whole, I don’t want to be right. Certainly not that far right.”

Patrick’s remarks came halfway through a special legislative session in which lawmakers have repeatedly taken aim at local governments. Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, has proposed to lawmakers a long list of ideas related to how cities and counties set budgets, regulate land use and approve construction projects.

Some of the most controversial bills now making their way through the Legislature would require a local election to approve property tax rate increases over a certain percentage and legislation that would regulate which bathrooms transgender people can use. Current versions of the bathroom proposal would preempt parts of local nondiscrimination ordinances that include protections for transgender people.

Many city officials have criticized the Legislature’s efforts, saying city governments need freedom and flexibility to govern.

“We are closer to our residents than the state is or the federal government, so we know what is best for our community because we are responsible for our community,” said El Paso Mayor Dee Margo, a Republican. “Not only is El Paso the largest U.S. city on the Mexican border, we’re also ranked as the safest city in the nation.”

Mayors from two of the state’s six biggest cities are Republican: Margo, plus Betsy Price of Fort Worth.

But “the fact that city elections are nonpartisan is one of the greatest things about city government,” said Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League. “We like to say that potholes aren’t Democratic or Republican… it costs the same amount regardless of ideology.” 

Disclosure: Steve Adler, a former Texas Tribune board chairman, and Dee Margo have been financial supporters of the Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Senate gives early OK to must-pass “sunset” legislation

State Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, talks with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on the dais during the Senate session on July 19, 2017.  After passing SB20 the sunset bill, the Senate will reconvene at midnight to pass the bills to third reading. 

A fast-moving Senate gave unanimous early approval to critical “sunset legislation” on Wednesday afternoon, using two bills to extend the life of five state agencies held political hostage at the end of the regular legislative session.

The special session’s Senate Bill 20 and Senate Bill 60, authored by state Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, would reauthorize the Texas Medical Board and four other state agencies. Gov. Greg Abbott has said he won’t add other hot-button items to legislators’ agenda until after they keep those agencies afloat. 

The Senate will reconvene one minute after midnight, when lawmakers in the upper chamber can take a final vote on both bills. 

“I will bring the pizza and the soda pop,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick joked. 

If they pass, as expected, they’ll head across the hall to the Texas House, which has made clear it’s not motivated by a speedy timetable. 

Senators also announced that several committees would hold public hearings Friday, including on the controversial “bathroom bill” that has yet to be filed. 

The House State Affairs committee on Wednesday approved sunset legislation of its own — House Bill 1 by Round Rock Republican Larry Gonzales — which would leave the five state agencies open for another two years. It’s unclear how soon that bill will head to the full chamber.

The House would also need to pass House Bill 2 to fund the agencies.

Andy Duehren contributed to this report. 

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Licensing director is seventh official out at troubled Texas liquor agency

Pictured second from left is liquor lobbyist Dewey Brackin. Next to him, in the center, is Amy Harrison, licensing director at the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. The photo was taken in San Antonio at a conference of the National Conference of State Liquor Administrators. Brackin forwarded the photo to Harrison with the caption, "Feeling no pain ..."

Licensing Director Amy Harrison is the seventh official out at the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission since April. TABC spokesman Chris Porter said Friday Harrison “separated” from the agency Wednesday.

Jo Ann Joseph, previously the deputy director of licensing, will act as licensing director until a decision is made about Harrison’s permanent replacement, Porter said.

Harrison helped oversee the creation of a controversial flyer depicting agency honchos partying during out-of-state junkets. Her departure comes less than a week after the acting executive director abruptly quit, saying he did not want to participate in the “termination” of Harrison.

“I believe you are a good man who faces a very challenging situation and who must make some difficult decisions,” the acting executive director wrote in a letter to TABC Chairman Kevin Lilly. “However my conscience will not allow me to take part in the termination of Amy Harrison from the commission.”

The TABC has seen a spate of departures since The Texas Tribune began reporting a series of stories about the agency, including lavish trips officials took to out-of-state resorts, questionable use of peace officer status by agency brass, and failures to accurately maintain records of state-owned vehicles.

Gov. Greg Abbott tapped Lilly to clean up the agency’s mess. And on Tuesday, a decorated military officer and practicing lawyer, Adrian Bentley Nettles, was picked to head TABC after the acting executive director’s departure. 

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New executive director appointed to troubled Texas liquor agency

Bentley Nettles, a decorated military officer and practicing lawyer, was appointed executive director of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. 

A lawyer with a lengthy military background has been tapped to clean up the embattled Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, after a series of controversies and high-level departures at the agency.

TABC commissioners appointed Adrian Bentley Nettles, a decorated military officer and practicing lawyer, to head the Texas liquor agency after a closed-door session on Tuesday.

Nettles will replace Sherry Cook, who announced in April she would step down from the executive directorship amid a series of spending controversies at the TABC.

“Brigadier General Bentley Nettles is a tested leader whose integrity, skills and experience, in both the military and the private sector, make him the ideal choice to get the TABC back on track,” Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement. “As a highly decorated military officer, and Texas lawyer, General Nettles has dedicated his life to serving Texans and his country, and I am confident he will continue to be a dedicated public servant in his new role. I have no doubt that his steady hand will restore trust in the agency, and I look forward to working with him in his new role.”

Nettles was released from active duty in 2015 and now has a law office in Bryan, focused on assisting veterans with issues related to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, estate planning, Medicaid and small business. Over the course of his military career, he was awarded 24 awards and badges, including a Purple Heart.

TABC Chairman Kevin Lilly said six candidates were interviewed for the executive director position on Tuesday. Lilly praised Nettles’ leadership, strong legal background, character and history of public service. “I think he’s a great American and a great Texan and his history of public service is unblemished,” he added in a brief interview Tuesday.

Lilly was tapped by Abbott, who has expressed public concern about TABC, to reform the agency. After Cook announced she would step down, Abbott said in a tweet, “It’s time to clean house from regulators not spending taxpayer money wisely.” He added, “This is a good start.”

Robert Saenz, executive chief of field operations, will serve as acting executive director until Nettles can take over, likely in three to four weeks. Julia Allen, an assistant general counsel at the agency, will serve as acting general counsel.

Six high-level officials have left TABC in the past few months, including Ed Swedberg, who became acting executive director after Cook’s departure. He quit Friday after a few weeks on the job.

The TABC has seen a spate of departures since The Texas Tribune began reporting a series of stories about the agency, including lavish trips officials took to out-of-state resorts, questionable use of peace officer status by agency brass, and failures to accurately maintain records of state-owned vehicles.

Since the Tribune began its reporting, Texas lawmakers have also voted to ban most out-of-state travel for agency personnel.

In June, the Tribune reported that the TABC tried to cancel every permit held by Spec’s liquor stores or fine the retailer up to $713 million. In a blunt ruling, a panel of judges said the TABC failed to prove any serious infractions made by Spec’s and recommended that no fines be imposed on the Houston-based liquor store chain.

Besides Swedberg and Cook, the agency’s general counsel, chief of enforcement and head of internal affairs have all left the agency since the beginning of July.

When Swedberg quit on Friday, he said he did not want to participate in the “termination” of another high-ranking official, Licensing Director Amy Harrison. Harrison, who helped oversee the creation of a controversial flyer depicting agency honchos partying during out-of-state junkets, still had her job Tuesday, TABC spokesman Chris Porter said.

Additional reporting by Jay Root.

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