Here’s a quick recap of what happened over the last week:

Paxton Investigation Continuing

It appears that even though the Texas Senate acquitted Attorney General Ken Paxton last year on all charges that led to his impeachment, a federal grand jury is moving forward with their investigation.  In a case that is under seal before the US 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, an unnamed state agency petitioned the court to stop federal investigators from calling top state agency officials to appear before a grand jury that is scheduled to convene in San Antonio.  While the agency is not specified in the ruling, the dates and details laid out in the ruling from the 5th Circuit are consistent with the investigation into Paxton regarding the acceptance of bribes and abuse of power by the sitting state Attorney General.

The yearslong investigation by federal officials started when Paxton’s own employees publicized allegations that Paxton was taking bribes from an Austin real estate developer and using the powers of the Attorney General’s office to assist him in an ongoing federal investigation related to financial fraud allegations.

In the simplest of terms, the 5th Circuit ruling said that the agency cannot invoke attorney-client privilege to block the US Justice Department from investigating alleged wrongdoing by agency personnel.  Therefore, the agency employees must testify before the grand jury.

Lt. Governor Patrick Commits to Pass Law Regarding the Ten Commandments

When the state of Louisiana passed a law last week to require the Ten Commandments be displayed in all public school classrooms, Lt. Governor Patrick seized on the opportunity to have the same law passed in Texas.  During the 2023 session, the Texas Senate passed a similar law that died in the House.  Patrick said Texas should have been the first state to pass such a law, and blamed House Speaker Dade Phelan for the bill’s failure in the House. The proposed Texas law required all public school classrooms – grades K through 12 – to display the Ten Commandments on posters that measured 16 by 20 inches.  The bill passed the Senate along partisan lines, but never received a vote at the committee level in the House.  When asked about the prospects in the House for passage of a similar bill in the 2025 session, Speaker Phelan deferred to the will of the body, saying the membership will decide on the agenda for next session.

Speaker’s Race Update

Regarding at least part of the agenda for next session, declared Speaker candidate Rep. Tom Oliverson went to social media this week to say that one of his priorities for next session – if elected Speaker – would be to eliminate taxpayer funded lobbying.  Conservatives in the legislature for years have tried to prohibit cities and counties from hiring lobbyists with taxpayer dollars to advocate for their community needs before the legislature.  Local officials say it is their right as elected officials to hire lobbyists to fight for the priorities of the local residents.  Opponents say taxpayer dollars should not be used to hire outside consultants.  The Senate has consistently over the last several sessions passed legislation to ban taxpayer funding of lobbyists, while the House has never put up the measures for consideration.  The legislation has proposed not only a ban on hiring of lobbyists by cities and counties, but also other taxpayer supported entities such as school districts, water and special utility districts, and other political subdivisions.

US Supreme Court Allows Gun Restrictions Related to Domestic Violence

For the second time in two weeks, the US Supreme Court handed down a major firearms related decision in response to a lawsuit originally filed in Texas.  Last week, the high court upheld the legality of bump stocks on rifles in response to a challenge brought by an Austin gun store owner.  This week, the court considered a case brought by a Texas man that challenged the constitutionality of protective orders that can bar anyone accused of domestic violence from owning firearms.  In the opinion, the court stated that “since the Founding”, the nation’s firearm laws have always included regulations to stop individuals who threaten physical harm from misusing firearms.  The court went on to say that protective orders “fall within the historical tradition of firearm regulation.”

The individual that brought the original challenge had a protective order issued against him in 2020 after he allegedly assaulted his girlfriend.  He was also accused of five separate shootings in 2020 according to court documents.

Charges Dropped Against UT Protestors

Travis County Attorney Delia Garza announced this week that all criminal trespassing charges against the people arrested during the April pro-Palestinian protests on the UT campus will be dismissed.  Garza said that after review of the evidence, she had serious concerns of whether there were any violations of the constitutional right to free speech.  Furthermore, she said there would be no way for her office to meet the legal burden to prove the offense of trespassing beyond a reasonable doubt.  79 individuals were charged with criminal trespassing.  Two others were charged with obstructing a passageway and interfering with public duty.  Those latter charges have not been dismissed.  A statement from the university expressed disappointment in the decision by the county to dismiss the charges and they remain committed to “continue to use law enforcement and administrative tools at our disposal to maintain safety and operational continuity for the 53,000 students that come to our campus.”

AI Could Affect Power Grid

Last week, both the Senate Business and Commerce Committee and House State Affairs Committee heard invited testimony regarding the reliability of the state’s electric grid.  With the state set to experience another hot summer, anxiety is growing regarding the challenges of continuing to have reliable sources of energy during extreme weather conditions.  In recent testimony, officials from ERCOT – the state entity in charge of overseeing the grid – said that another reason for concern and anxiety is the growing number of computer data centers in the state.  These centers are being built to mine cryptocurrency and to support artificial intelligence (AI) systems.  The problem?  Running an AI search on your computer takes anywhere from 10 to 30 times the energy to run a simple google search.

The state is working to build more grid infrastructure, including more transmission lines, and providing incentives for energy companies to build more power producing plants, but to build out the infrastructure will take years.  The data centers are coming online at a much more rapid pace.  ERCOT officials testified they would like to see stronger laws in the state that would allow for stronger monitoring and regulation of the data centers that would allow regulators to control the energy load they are consuming.  This will be a debate to watch as lawmakers prepare for the next session.  Balancing the state’s need for a more reliable grid versus the state tradition of encouraging business development through fewer regulations and state interference.

Border News

The murder of 12-year-old Jocelyn Nungaray in Houston has once again sparked intense criticism over the nation’s border enforcement policies.  Nungaray was found strangled to death and dumped in a creek in Houston earlier this week.  Surveillance footage led police to the two assailants who were identified as being from Venezuela. Both men entered the country illegally near El Paso, were apprehended by US Customs and Border Patrol, and later released from custody.  Reaction has been harsh from Texas officials, including Ted Cruz who is calling for the death penalty for the suspects if found guilty.  Gov. Abbott also weighed in with heavy criticism of the Biden administration’s border enforcement policies.  The men are being held on a $10 million bond in the Harris County jail.  Local Houston furniture store owner Mattress Mack has offered to pay for the funeral service and will host a celebration of her life at one of his store locations.

The Biden administration also announced this week they are closing the nation’s largest ICE detention center in Dilley – southwest of San Antonio – that is capable of holding 2,400 migrants.  ICE said it is closing the facility because it is run by a private prison contractor and the costs have become prohibitive.  The Biden administration is closing several privately run facilities, citing cost factors, even though the need for bed space continues to rise.  According to ICE, there are 7.4 million migrants being tracked in the US that have been released after entering the country and are waiting for court dates regarding their request for asylum.

4th of July Travel

An estimated 5.6 million Texans will travel throughout the state during the upcoming 4th of July holiday period.  According to the AAA, this is a 5% increase over last year, making this the busiest 4th of July ever.  AAA is basing its travel forecast on the period of days starting Saturday, June 29th and lasting until Sunday, July 7th.  Specifically for Texas, AAA estimates 4.8 million will travel by automobile and 550,000 will fly to their chosen destination.  Just like most summertime travel, the most popular destinations are Galveston, Fredericksburg, Corpus Christi, and the San Antonio River Walk.  Nationwide, more than 70 million are expected to travel more than 50 miles from their home for some or all of the holiday week.

Political Notes

Lt. Governor Patrick made the Senate appointments to the Sunset Advisory Commission this week. Sunset is the joint House/Senate oversight committee that reviews state agencies and recommends changes to their agency in the form of legislation each session.  Patrick appointed Sens. Tan Parker of Flower Mound, Kevin Sparks of Midland, and Mayes Middleton of Galveston, all Republicans along with Sen. Cesar Blanco, a Democrat from El Paso. This interim, the major agencies up for review are the Lottery Commission, the Department of Criminal Justice, the Real Estate Commission, and a host of river authorities.

Dallas County Republican Party Chair Allen West – former Congressman from Florida – has called for a full audit of the county’s election procedures.  West made it clear he is not questioning the results of past elections but wants the audit to ensure Dallas County officials are strictly adhering to all state laws and procedures.  In his letter asking for the audit, West asks for a third-party audit of the process, and wants the audit to concentrate on the November 2022 election cycle.

The perceived tension between Houston mayor John Whitmire and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo boiled again this week when the Judge posted a picture of her and her fiancé on Facebook from her bridal shower.  Commenting on the picture, the mayor said of the fiancé that “he sure looks like a nerd.”  Hidalgo immediately came to her fiancé’s defense, saying “I’m a nerd too.”  Whitmire and Hidalgo have a tense history.  Most recently, Hidalgo endorsed Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee last year when she ran against Whitmire for mayor, and Whitmire did not endorse Hidalgo in her last reelection bid in 2022.

And finally, entertainer and one-time politician Kinky Friedman passed away this week.  Friedman gained his initial fame as a political satirist and with his band the Texas Jewboys.  His most famous one-liner was in response to his stance on gay marriage, when he quipped “I support gay marriage because I believe they have the right to be just as miserable as the rest of us.”  He ran for Governor against incumbent Rick Perry in 2006 and ran for Agriculture Commissioner in both 2010 and 2014.  All races were unsuccessful.  A family spokesman said he died from Parkinson’s disease. He was 79.

What’s Next??

The House has several hearings scheduled for the week of July 8th, after the holiday break:

The State Affairs committee will meet to review progress on broadband infrastructure for rural Texas and to hear from ERCOT on electric grid and reliability issues.

The Youth Health and Safety Committee will meet to review state policies regarding behavioral services for at-risk youth.

The Homeland Security Committee will meet to review and study communication challenges faced by first responders.

Here is a link to the full list of hearings later this summer and fall, and the agenda for each hearing

No update next week because of the July 4th holiday.  Have a great and safe holiday and look for my next update on July 12th.