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The Brief: May 22, 2015

Four large donors to the nonprofit currently documenting Texas lawmakers this session are well-known backers of conservative causes.

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The Big Conversation

The focus on Thursday shifted to the money men in the unfolding story on American Phoenix Foundation, the nonprofit that has unleashed an army of camera operators to document Texas lawmakers this legislative session.

The Tribune's Terri Langford notes that despite the group's insistence that their mission is bipartisan, "four large donors to the American Phoenix Foundation — the Strake Foundation, the State Policy Network, the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, and Jeff Sandefer's Ed Foundation — are well-known backers of conservative causes. The donations show what many had suspected  — that money was coming in from institutional organizations active in other conservative causes."

When contacted by the Tribune, Strake, who served as secretary of state in the Bill Clements administration, said his donations weren't connected with the current video project. "I thought we were for transparency in government," Strake told the Tribune. "They're public servants. If you don't want anybody to know about it, don't do it. That's my theory on that."

Sandefer, who gave American Phoenix Foundation $100,000 in 2011 and another $100,000 in 2013, told the Houston Chronicle that he was not happy with the lack of feedback on how his money was being used. He asked for his money back, he told the Chronicle, and his request was not honored.

The Chronicle writes:

After the first $100,000, Sandefer said he received no indication from (Foundation founder Joe) Basel how the money was being used. After he agreed to give the foundation a second $100,000 in 2013, he expected a progress report but received none.

"We did not get into specifics of what they were going to do. I never got that far. I never heard a specific plan to do anything," Sandefer said. "I have no legal right to ask for that, but I would like my (second) contribution returned."

Trib Must-Reads

Union Dues Spark an End-of-Session Dispute, by Ross Ramsey — An unexpected end-of-session skirmish over payroll deductions for union dues pits Republicans against Democrats, business against labor, and presents lawmakers with one of those votes that might be important in next year's elections.

Bill Increasing Unemployment Taxes Advances, by Jay Root — Legislation pushed by a politically connected company would increase unemployment taxes for Texas employers. Proponents say it would help outsourcing companies avoid "double taxation." Critics say it's a special interest perk.

Contracting Experiment Drawing Mixed Reviews, by Eva Hershaw — After four years of trying out a new way of awarding state contracts known as design-build, lawmakers aren't sure taxpayers get a better deal, and Texas businesses say they're being muscled out of jobs by larger, out-of-state companies.

U.S. Rep. Thornberry Juggles Politics as Panel's Chairman, by Abby Livingston — U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry is one of the most powerful players on Capitol Hill. But his new gavel as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee comes with scrutiny.

House, Senate Negotiators Reach Deal on Budget, by Aman Batheja — Top House and Senate negotiators sealed up the final unresolved issues on a two-year budget deal on Thursday evening, including removing controversial language that would have killed a proposed Dallas-Houston bullet train.

State Leaders Reach Tax Cut Deal, by Aman Batheja — Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus announced late Thursday the terms of a $3.8 billion tax relief package — a move that followed weeks of testy negotiations.

In Announcement, Perry Set to Tout Military Service, by Patrick Svitek — Former Gov. Rick Perry is set to emphasize his military experience when he takes the stage next month to announce a second bid for the White House.

Senate Moves to Reform Driver Responsibility Program, by Edgar Walters — The Texas Senate voted Thursday to weaken the state’s Driver Responsibility Program, which critics say unfairly penalizes poor Texans.

House Passes Bill on Pastors' Rights to Refuse Gay Marriages, by Aman Batheja — The so-called Pastor Protection Act, which aims to clarify a clergy member's right to refuse to conduct a marriage that violates his or her beliefs, tentatively passed the Texas House 141-2 Thursday.

Abbott Says Texas Will Work to Follow Prison Rape Law, by Patrick Svitek — In a shift away from his predecessor Rick Perry, Gov. Greg Abbott has informed the U.S. Justice Department that Texas plans to comply as much as possible with a federal law that aims to prevent prison rape.

Curbs on Suing Insurance Companies Rile Business Lobby, by Jay Root and Julián Aguilar — Businesses are joining consumer advocates in sounding the alarm about a proposal that critics say would stack the deck in favor of insurance companies at the expense of businesses and homeowners.

The Day Ahead

•    The House and Senate convene at 10 a.m. It is the last day for the House to consider local bills and the first day the Senate can consider bills and resolutions the first day they are posted on the Intent Calendar.

•    House Appropriations meets at 9 a.m. to take up SB 9 by Kelly Hancock setting up a new statutory spending cap (E1.030)

•    Senate State Affairs meets at 8 a.m. to take up HB 48 by Ruth Jones McClendon establishing the Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission to examine cases where an innocent person was convicted and later exonerated (E1.012)

•    The Senate subcommittee on border security meets at 8 a.m. to take up HB 12 by Oscar Longoria establishing a border prosecution unit (E1.714)

•    Senate Finance meets at 9 a.m. with HB 2, the supplemental appropriations bill, and HB 6, the funds consolidation bill, up for consideration (E1.036)

Elsewhere

Sarah Davis becomes first Texas GOP lawmaker to back gay marriage, Texas Observer

Texas union-weakening law, SB 1968, stalls as future unclear, Austin American-Statesman

State budget negotiators agree to boost university research funds, Austin American-Statesman

House sends pre-K improvement bill to Gov. Abbott, The Dallas Morning News

Sex offender program reforms head to governor's desk, Houston Chronicle

Timothy Cole bill gets public hearing, Amarillo Globe-News

Bill to create healthcare district heads to governor’s desk, The Monitor

Austin’s population is booming, and San Marcos benefits, San Antonio Express-News

Jeb Hensarling will test his power with Export-Import Bank vote, Politico

Rove’s Crossroads PAC Is No Longer G.O.P.’s ‘Big Dog’, The New York Times

Quote to Note

"I was unaware that they were planning to film politicians. Our intent was that they were going to train journalists. We were unhappy with a lack of progress in training journalists and asked for the money back. And we did not receive any money back."

Jeff Sandefer, the high-profile higher education critic, telling the Houston Chronicle that he was not happy with how the American Phoenix Foundation was using the $200,000 he has given the group

Today in TribTalk

Don't let agency reform get derailed, by Knox Kimberly — Thousands of hours of work spent on recommending crucial changes to the state's health agencies are now in jeopardy. Lawmakers can't let that go to waste.

News From Home

The latest episode of The Ticket, a co-production of the Tribune and KUT is out. We dive into Bernie Sanders' presidential announcement and speak with a Sanders supporter, former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower, about what we can expect from his campaign.

Trib Events for the Calendar

•    How'd the Senate Do? A Conversation About the 84th Legislative Session on May 28 at The Austin Club

•    A Conversation About Texas Monthly's Best and Worst Legislators 2015 on June 18 at The Austin Club

•    The Texas Tribune Festival on Oct. 16-18 at the University of Texas at Austin

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