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

House Releases Interim Studies

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan released a list of charges for most standing committees this week, directing them to monitor bills from last session and make recommendations for the next regular session starting in January.  Highlighting the charges is another look at private school vouchers, which is the issue that kept the legislature in session until almost Christmas last year.  The House Public Education Committee is charged with reviewing ways to create “educational opportunities”, including the establishment of an education savings account that would be used to fund vouchers.  Phelan also directed committees to evaluate the high cost of housing in the state, review issues regarding foreign ownership of rural land, ways to provide additional property tax relief, and to review the state’s border policies and determine if more resources are needed to enhance the state’s border security efforts.

From a political standpoint, many of the interim activities will be done in vain since several House committee chairs were defeated in the recent primary elections, and several others are in runoffs and could lose their seats as well.  There were even committees such as Urban Affairs that received no charges for the interim.  Its chair – Rep. JM Lozano of Kingsville – has publicly criticized Phelan and called for the election of a new Speaker in January. In addition, the Speaker himself is in the political fight of his life.  He faces David Covey in the May 28th Republican runoff election.  Phelan faces an uphill battle against Covey who has received endorsements from former President Trump, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton, and US Senator Ted Cruz.  If Phelan is defeated, then the usual weight the committee recommendations carry going into the session would be nullified when presented to a new House Speaker.

Highlights from May 4th Election

In a mild upset, emergency room nurse Molly Cook defeated Rep. Jarvis Johnson in the special election Saturday to complete the term of former state Sen. John Whitmire, who stepped down in December after being elected mayor of Houston.  Cook won the election for the solidly blue Senate District 15 in central Harris County easily, garnering 57% of the vote over Johnson, who had the built-in advantage with his House seat incumbency.  Turnout was very low in the race.  Only 16,302 votes were cast in a district with over 550,000 registered voters.

Cook will be sworn in after the votes are canvassed and will serve through December to complete this current term.  The two candidates will face off again on May 28th in the Democratic runoff to see who will be on the November ballot to face election for the full four-year term beginning in January.  In the March primary, it was Rep. Johnson winning easily by a 36% to 21 % margin.

Dallas voters approved a $1.25 billion bond package that will fund improvements to roads, parks, libraries, and storm drainage infrastructure.  The package was presented to voters in 10 different propositions, and the improvements could begin as early as this fall.  Support for the propositions ranged from 70% to 86% among the voters.  The city estimates a need of an additional $15 billion for ongoing infrastructure upgrades that the city would like to see funded over the next 5 years.

In the suburb of Anna, north of Dallas, voters once again rejected a $100 million bond package for a high school stadium in the fast-growing district in Collin County.  In 2022, voters approved the district’s plans for new campuses in the district but rejected the stadium proposal.  District officials tried again on Saturday for approval of a 12,000-seat stadium, but voters soundly rejected it with 57% in opposition.  Voters in the nearby communities of Granbury, Mansfield, and Argyle – all fast growth districts – also rejected bond proposals that involved athletic facilities.

Lubbock voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposed ordinance that would have decriminalized the possession of four ounces or less of marijuana in the city limits.  The ordinance was proposed when a group called Freedom Act Lubbock collected enough verified signatures to allow the proposal to be placed on the ballot.

Congressman Cuellar Indicted

Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar of Laredo was indicted last week by the US Department of Justice on charges of money laundering and bribery.  Cuellar – whose wife was also indicted – is accused of accepting nearly $600,000 in bribes from two foreign entities in exchange for the Congressman performing official acts.  The charges are related to his ties with a bank in Mexico and an oil and gas company controlled by the government of Azerbaijan.  In its statement announcing the indictments, the DOJ alleged the payments were laundered through a series of sham companies that were hired for consulting services that never existed.  The Congressman’s wife Imelda is accused by the DOJ of being the owner of the shell companies that were set up to accept the consulting payments in exchange for no legitimate work under the contracts.

The DOJ went on to say that “in exchange for payments from the Azerbaijani oil and gas company, Congressman Cuellar agreed to use his office to influence US foreign policy in favor of Azerbaijan.  And, in exchange for bribes paid by the Mexican bank, Congressman Cuellar agreed to influence legislative activity and to advise high-ranking US Executive Branch officials regarding measures to benefit the bank.”

The Congressman and his wife are charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit bribery of a federal official and to have a public official act as an agent of a foreign principal; two counts of bribery of a federal official; one count of conspiracy to commit concealment of money laundering; and five counts of money laundering.  If convicted, the Cuellars could face decades in prison.

Cuellar has denied any wrongdoing, saying that he “proactively sought legal advice from the House Ethics Committee” regarding the activities.  Cuellar also said he would continue with his reelection bid. But he will have to step down from his position as the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee that has jurisdiction over the Department of Homeland Security.

But the case took a turn that could be very detrimental to Cuellar yesterday when the San Antonio Express News reported that two political consultants that have worked for Cuellar reached a plea deal in the case.  In March, the political consultants pleaded guilty to charges they conspired with the Congressman to launder more than $200,000 in bribes from a Mexican bank.  As part of the plea deal, the two men agreed to cooperate with the DOJ in the investigation of Cuellar.  Court records show the two worked together to take payments from the Mexican bank and then pass the money to Cuellar’s wife.  From 2016 to 2019, a total of $261,000 in payments were made to the men, of which $236,000 was passed on to Mrs. Cuellar.  The two consultants agreed as part of the deal to not only testify before the grand jury that was presented the evidence, but to also testify in any future judicial proceedings in the case.

Cuellar is a former customs broker who also served seven terms in the Texas House from 1987 to 2000 before being appointed as Texas Secretary of State by then Governor Rick Perry in 2001.  He was first elected to the US House in 2004.  His is seeking his 11th term in the US House in November.

Flooding, Recovery in East Texas and Houston Area

The rain from last week caused widespread flooding and prompted evacuations from areas in Harris County and up through large portions of Southeast Texas.  Some areas saw well over 20 inches of rain.  As of last Sunday, over 700 people had to be rescued from Harris, Polk, Montgomery, San Jacinto, and Walker counties.  Earlier in the week, as many as 6,000 residents in these areas were without power, and multiple road closures were in effect due to high water.

Gov. Abbott visited Conroe on Monday along with representatives from the Division of Emergency Management to receive updates on the flooding and coordinate the state response.  At a press availability, Abbott said that 91 counties were affected by last week’s rains and that Federal Emergency Management Agency will be in the region to assess the damage starting Tuesday.  There must be at least 800 uninsured homes with damage for the federal government to declare a disaster.  Abbott said the state will assist FEMA with its assessments to ensure the areas are receiving the most federal assistance for which they are eligible.

Border News

According to the latest numbers from Customs and Border Patrol, illegal crossings have fallen in 2024. The 2023 fiscal year ended with a record 2,457,669 encounters with migrants attempting to enter the US illegally.  In March of this year, there were 137,480 encounters along the entire southern border, which is down 16% from March of 2023.  The numbers went down again in April, as Border Patrol agents apprehended nearly 129,000 migrants last month.  Even though numbers are down over the last two months, apprehensions are on track to exceed 2 million for the fiscal year, which would be the third straight year of more than 2 million migrant apprehensions.

Specifically in Texas, 30,000 apprehensions were made in the El Paso area in April, making that sector the busiest for apprehensions in the state.  Also, Texas DPS is reporting an increase in arrests on state trespassing charges in areas north of Eagle Pass.  According to DPS, migrants are choosing to go north of Eagle Pass due to the amount of surveillance and razor wire fencing that has been set up in and immediately around Eagle Pass.  Over the last two weeks, DPS reports making over 70 arrests for trespassing.  The migrants consist of people from mostly Central and South American countries such as Ecuador, Peru, and Honduras.  The law allowing the state to charge the migrants with a crime – Senate Bill 4 – is currently on hold while it is under review from the US Supreme Court.  Therefore, those being arrested are immediately turned over to the jurisdiction of the Border Patrol.

Political Notes

According to a report earlier this week in the Houston Chronicle, US Senator Ted Cruz is more dependent on out-of-state donors than in-state contributors in his bid for a third term in the US Senate.  Roughly 55% of the $26 million Cruz has raised has come from residents living outside of Texas.  The article sourced Open Secrets; a non-partisan group based in Washington that tracks money in politics.  Comparatively, Colin Allred – the Democrat challenging Cruz – has received about 42% of his donations from out-of-state residents.  Allred reports having $10.5 million on hand at the end of April compared to $9.4 million for Cruz.  Cruz and Allred have already combined to raise more than $60 million for the race.

More on Speaker’s race – Speaker Phelan held a fundraiser in Houston last night at the home of Houston developer and construction company owner George Pontikes.  Austin lobby association Texans for Lawsuit Reform, along with a few Houston area House members and other prominent Houston area business leaders were among the hosts listed on the invitation.  Phelan doesn’t necessarily need the money – a record $6 million has been spent on the race so far — but an impressive host list shows he still has substantial support in his bid for reelection despite the Republican leadership that has come out against him.

State Rep. Tony Tinderholt, a Republican from Arlington, has come out in an ad funded by the Defend Texas Liberty PAC – known for supporting far right candidates – that supports David Lowe, challenging Republican Rep. Stephanie Klick of Fort Worth.  Tinderholt ran against Phelan for the Speaker’s job last January and has been a vocal critic of Phelan and his leadership team in the House.  In the ad, Tinderholt criticizes Klick for her record on legislation related to medical care for transgender related transition.  Klick chairs the House Public Health committee, that oversees most legislation related to medical care.

What’s Next??

The runoff election is May 28th, 18 days from today.  Fundraising, commercials, and all other relative activities will now begin to ramp up even more.

With the release of House interim studies, look for several committees to schedule hearings in the coming weeks.  Of course, the speed and intensity of the hearings on the House side will depend on the outcome of the runoff elections.  Senate hearings are in full swing, with most Senate committe

Highlights of next week’s committee hearings include the Senate Higher Education Committee that will meet Tuesday to discuss the ban on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion policies at public universities, and to review campus policies to combat antisemitism on college campuses.

Also, the Senate Water, Agriculture, and Rural Affair Committee will meet to discuss the reliability of the state’s system of delivering water effectively to our communities, including how the state can better assist local jurisdictions with water infrastructure needs.

And the Senate Local Government committee will meet to discuss the issues of how to effectively deal with squatters – individuals and families that have claimed adverse possession of homes and properties.