House Tensions Run High as Deadlines Loom

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Yesterday was a very dramatic day in the Texas House.

Looming with the deadline that any non-local House Bills must be passed out of the full House by tomorrow night, tensions can run high, and that came to boiling point yesterday.

With the passage of HB 500, a bill that was debated for several hours yesterday, the stage was set for drama. HB 500 cuts taxes for businesses to the tune of almost $666 million dollars. There was vigourous debate on the bill and on the priorities of using these extra monies for tax breaks. Sylvester Turner, proving to be a budget hawk, like most Democrats this session was most notably against the spending, as his displaying of an abacus made clear.

But one of the most tense and contentious moments, forcing R's to battle with one another was what came next, an amendment to HB 3153, a fairly non-contentious bill without the proposed amendment.

The amendment, authored by Representative Phil King, would have transferred funding from the Public Integrity Unity to the Attorney General's Office, unless the current District Attorney, Rosemary Lehmberg resigns. Lehmberg was convicted of a DUI last month and is currently serving her sentence in the Travis County Jail.

The Public Integrity Unit is a unique entity because it is funded by the state, but it is meant to investigate and prosecute officeholders in the state. It is housed and run under the umbrella of the Travis County District Attorney's Office. If Lehmberg resigns, Rick Perry would have the power to appoint someone as the Travis County DA until her term expires.

The amendment had a point of order overruled on it for germaneness, and caused several prominent members to speak against it, noting that it is bad public policy, and bad politics for a myriad of reasons. Democrat Sylvester Turner and Republican Charlie Geren both spoke against the amendment.

To read what they said click “There's More”  Rep. Turner noted that the amendment set a dangerous precedent because the legislature is targeting one person in particular. He noted that here are current procedures in place and a process for removal at the local level. Representative King said that he wanted to protect the integrity of the office, but Representative Turner said that this amendment actually threatens the integrity of the office because it is removing the standard procedures already in place for removal. He also noted that this would greatly disrupt the office and if the funding is moved because there are currently over 400 ongoing investigations within the Public Integrity Unit.  

Rep Charlie Geren also noted that he works with the office from time to time as he the Chairman of House Administration. Rep Geren said that the office is run very professionally, and it is actually not directly run by the DA, the DA just happens to oversee the office. Rep. Craig Eiliand has pointed out that moving the unit to the Attorney General's Office “is going to look bad and it's not going to work” because the Legislature directly controls the AGs office, and they also do not have the authority to prosecute the cases the Public Integrity Unit prosecutes.

As Quorum Reports recently noted Article 5 Section 21 of the Constitution states the Legislature could defund the Public Integrity Unit, but not take away its power to prosecute, which is also what makes the unity such a unique entity.

Austin's own Representative Naishtat made sure to point out all the types of crimes they prosecute including motor fuels tax fraud, among many other things. The question was also brought up about the constitutionality of an ex post facto law, making a law retroactive as opposed to prospective (this bill address something that has already happened, not something that could happen).

Representative King eventually withdrew his amendment, but he said he had the votes, despite pulling it down, and he also declared that he will continue to try to add his amendment to relevant legislation.

Throughout the debate Representative King insisted that he was not targeting her in particular, countering the argument that the Texas House, as a body, should not make such personal targets in legislation, yet before pulling down his amendment he declared, “Madam DA, please take this shot across the bow,” and then directly called on her to resign.  


About Author

Chaille Jolink

Chaille Jolink was born and raised in Austin, Texas and has more than a decade of experience working in Texas politics. Her interest began when she was a Senate Messenger in 2003, and she's since worked for several different legislators and candidates. She started reporting in 2007 for, and has been a contributor to several different publications. Chaille is a graduate of the University of Texas and enjoys fashion, baseball, and playing any team sport. Chaille tweets @ChailleMcCann.

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