AUSTIN (Nexstar) – After two days of delays and private deliberation, the Texas Senate voted Wednesday night to approve rules for the upcoming impeachment trial of suspended Attorney General Ken Paxton.

The trial is scheduled to begin on Sept. 5. Senators approved a separate resolution ordering Paxton to appear before the Senate by 9 a.m. on that date.

One highly-anticipated decision was whether Paxton’s wife, State Sen. Angela Paxton, would be required to recuse herself. That issue was addressed in the final rule senators approved, which states that as Ken Paxton’s spouse, Sen. Paxton “shall not be eligible to vote on any matter, motion, or question, or participate in closed sessions or deliberations.”

However, the rule also states that Sen. Paxton “shall be seated in the court of impeachment.” It also said she “shall be considered present and eligible only for the purpose of calculating the number of votes required for any and all matters, motions, and questions under these rules.”

That could be significant, since her presence would mean 31 senators would be on the court. A two-thirds vote is required to remove Ken Paxton permanently from office. With Sen. Paxton seated in the court, even as a non-voting member, the two-thirds threshold is 21 votes.

“They had to thread this needle carefully,” said Scott Braddock, editor of The Quorum Report of the decision on Angela Paxton’s role.

“The [Texas] Constitution says that the Senate can come up with its rules and maybe create a situation for recusals, but it also says that all senators need to sit for the trial,” Braddock explained.

“It’s important to note she can’t vote on the outcome at the end of the trial, and she can’t be in the closed-door deliberations of the Senate,” Braddock added.

“The meeting in the Senate that’s the most important is the one they always have behind closed doors before they come out on the floor and do whatever they’re going to do. And so if Angela Paxton was planning to be in that room to advocate for her husband, she won’t be,” Braddock said of the rules.

The allegations against Paxton include bribery, abuse of office, and obstruction.

Ongoing allegations of securities fraud facing Paxton will not be considered by the Senate in the September trial. Earlier this month, Texas’ highest criminal court ruled that the securities fraud case against Paxton should be held in Houston rather than closer to his home in Collin County.

Braddock noted that the Senate trial could have an effect on the separate criminal case facing Paxton.

“You have to think that if witnesses start taking the stand in the Senate, and evidence starts to be presented in the Senate, that it’s at least going to have some ripple effect for what happens in that criminal case,” Braddock said.

State senators will serve as a jury and will ultimately vote whether to convict or acquit Paxton, who was immediately suspended after the House voted 121-23 at the end of May to impeach him. No aspect of the trial will include criminal charges; senators’ vote will determine whether or not Paxton must be permanently removed from office.

Senators did not discuss the rules in public before Wednesday’s vote. After the vote, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick read aloud a rule preventing any of the senators from discussing the case or advocating a position on the case.

“No members of the court staff have members of the court presiding officer of the court, legal counsel the presiding officer shall discuss or comment on any matter relating to the merits of the proceedings before the court of impeachment,” Patrick read, quoting Rule 10 to the senators.

Patrick closed his remarks with praise for the senators and their work.

“I’ve never been more proud of the members on this floor and how you came together on the set of rules, and how seriously, you’re taking your responsibilities,” Patrick said. “I’m proud of all of you and the citizens of Texas can count on the Senate of Texas to have a fair and just trial.”

Death Star or New Hope? Legislation aims to limit local control

A bill dubbed the ‘death star’ bill by opponents — signed by Gov. Greg Abbott last week — will nix some local rules like mandatory water breaks for construction workers, eviction moratoriums and protections against predatory lending.

HB 2127 will not allow local governments to have laws more strict than the state’s in several areas including labor and environment.

Those behind the bill said it’s a solution to a years-long push from the business community to make it easier to comply with rules and regulations across the state.

State Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, authored the bill. “I’m so proud of that bill,” he said during an interview for the Talking Points politics program on KAMC in Lubbock. Burrows said that while opponents call it the death star bill, he thinks the more apropos Star Wars reference should be ‘New Hope.’

“I think it is going to be a boon to the Texas economy, creating more jobs, more revenues, and more prosperity for the long run,” Burrows added.

Democratic lawmakers fought the bill, saying it targets progressive ordinances passed by city lawmakers.

“It was really disappointing to see that the governor signed that bill. I think that for cities throughout the state, it’s gonna tie their hands in setting policies that are meant to protect the citizens of their areas,” said Rep. Vikki Goodwin, D-Travis County.

Glenn Hamer, president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business, said ultimately businesses need consistent guidelines. He believes it was small businesses impacted most, as they don’t have human resources and legal departments.

“Let the cities handle police fire, cultural, trash collection, zoning. And let the state handle matters concerning regulations that our businesses need to comply with,” Hamer said.

As Central Texas sees more days north of 100 degrees than it normally does by this time of the year, union representatives are sounding the alarm about protections for construction workers that are likely to go away when the bill becomes law in September.

The City of Austin passed an ordinance in 2010 to require a water break for construction workers every four hours, one of the casualties of the bill.

Ryan Pollock, the political director for IBEW Local 520 — which represents electrical workers — points out that Texas leads the nation in construction worker fatalities, largely due to overexposure from heat. It’s something the Texas AFL-CIO, a state labor federation, also noted.

“There are so few protections for workers in this state,” Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy said. “We are the deadliest state to work in. The Legislature has no business actively stripping away what protections we have and further threatening our health and safety.”

Meanwhile, Geoffrey Tahuahua, president of the Central Texas chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Texas, said he believes federal requirements from OSHA are enough to keep workers protected from Texas’ extreme heat, and that any additional protections should be made at the state level.

“One of my members has 19 active job sites in different jurisdictions. Having that consistency from job site to job site is really, really critical,” Tahuahua said.

Meanwhile, Burrows said Texas lawmakers could consider additional restrictions on local governments in future legislative sessions. He cited “crazy, leftist progressive type things” like green energy requirements and decriminalizing low-level thefts proposed in some cities.

“We’re not going to have our liberal cities in Texas turn into the dumpster fires that Portland and Seattle turned into where crime is rampant,” Burrows said. He added that the law could be expanded to “shut down those things to keep Texas the character we know and expect.”

‘That’s the way to go,’ Plan aims to provide $18 billion in property tax relief

Texas leaders are still at odds over plans to lower your property taxes. On Tuesday, the Texas Senate unanimously approved its largest property tax relief plan yet.

“The senate plan is a record $18 billion of tax relief going straight to school taxpayers across the state,” said State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, the author of the legislation. His bill would require voter approval in a constitutional amendment election.

But it’s not clear if the $18 billion dollar plan will break the stalemate between the state’s top leaders over how to provide tax relief.

The new proposal preserves the Senate’s top priority of raising the homestead exemption to $100,000, the most direct benefit to homeowners and the major sticking point between the upper chamber and Gov. Greg Abbott. It also dedicates $400 million more towards buying down school district property tax rates, the strategy Abbott prefers exclusively.

Bettencourt says he believes combining an increased homestead exemption with tax rate cuts is the best plan for Texas taxpayers. He said the Senate plan provides ‘eye-popping savings’ of nearly $1,300 per year for the average homeowner.

“The homestead exemption’s a very important point of this, because you [homeowners] don’t pay,” Bettencourt explained.

“The most powerful thing I could do as a tax writer is say ‘don’t pay.’ And that’s an exemption, or a rollback rate reduction or franchise tax doubling so 67,000 business owners don’t pay. That’s the way to go,” Bettencourt added.

Senators’ latest offer comes after weeks of a stalemate between the upper chamber and the governor, who supports the House plan of rate compression passed on the first full day of the special legislative session. Even during the regular session, top Republicans wrestled for months over how to cut property taxes with Texas’ historic budget surplus of $33 billion.

Renae Eze, spokesperson for Abbott, did not signal openness to the new Senate proposal on Tuesday — again emphasizing that the governor wants to see a reduction in taxes through rate compression, in which the state gives more money to school districts so they in turn can lower their tax rates. Abbott has said he believes this is the best pathway toward fulfilling his goal of ultimately eliminating property taxes.

“The Governor has been clear that his goal is to put Texans on a pathway to eliminate their school M&O property taxes, and the best way to do that is to devote all property tax relief to cutting property tax rates. The Governor has also been clear that the only way a property tax bill gets to his desk is for the Texas House and Texas Senate to agree to a bill and get it to the Governor’s desk, and he encourages the two chambers to work towards a solution,” Eze said in a statement.

With no sign of agreement between the two chambers before next week’s end of the special session, the course appears to be set for Abbott to call a future special session on property tax relief.

“I never try to predetermine what the governor will do. That’s up to him,” Bettencourt said. “But the Senate has put a great tax bill out for the public,” he added.

Abandoned app, outdated maps, investigation finds TxTag tech concerns

More than a month after KXAN launched a viewer-driven investigation into TxTag, the state-run toll operation owned and operated by the Texas Department of Transportation with a history of persistent issues, new concerns are being raised over its technology standards. KXAN discovered some of TxDOT’s toll maps are five years out-of-date and a mobile payment app that was in the works in 2018 was quietly abandoned.

Take a drive down U.S. Highway 183 South, also known as the Bergstrom Expressway, and you’ll see it’s very much in use. But, you’d never know that by looking at TxDOT’s website.

The Bergstrom Expressway toll plaza, owned by CTRMA (KXAN Photo/Matt Grant)

“It’s showing it’s under construction,” said Nick Wood, an associate research engineer with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, as he pointed to a road map of the Austin area on TxDOT’s website.

This particular eight-mile stretch of highway in east Austin is operated by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA). Costing nearly $1 billion, it’s touted as a key north-south alternative to Interstate 35. Here, tolls are collected by CTRMA — one of a handful of regional agencies across the state authorized to develop toll roads.

If you were planning a trip and using one one of TxDOT’s road maps of Austin as a reference, you wouldn’t know who collects tolls along this stretch of road, let alone that it’s been in use for more than two years. A dark orange dotted line signifies on the map that it hasn’t been built yet.

A screen grab of an outdated TxDOT road map of Austin showing the Bergstrom Expressway still under construction. MoPac Expressway and State Highway 130 are both shown in green, even though they are different types of toll roads. (TxDOT Map)
A screen grab of an outdated TxDOT road map of Austin showing the Bergstrom Expressway still under construction. MoPac Expressway and State Highway 130 are both shown in green, even though they are different types of toll roads. (Courtesy: TxDOT)

Wood has done transit studies for both the Federal Highway Administration and TxDOT and is troubled to see that some of Texas’ public road maps haven’t been updated, according to its own website, since July 7, 2018.

He told KXAN about his discovery, hoping it will help TxDOT improve.

“It’s not a priority,” said Wood, when asked why he thinks the maps are five years out-of-date.

KXAN brought the outdated maps to TxDOT’s attention on June 12.

“TxDOT is currently working to update information located on those pages,” TxDOT spokesman Adam Hammons said.

Hammons did not say why the maps were outdated and why it took five years, and KXAN pointing it out, to update them. Ten days after KXAN first alerted TxDOT, the maps were still outdated.

“TxDOT is working to provide the latest information for motorists on the managed lanes page,” Hammons said in a follow-up email. “More information on toll roads and managed lanes can be found here and here*.”

He noted with an asterisk that the map he sent us has a 2022 date in the corner, “but it was updated in March 2023 (noted in the footer) based on 2022 data.”

Nick Wood at his Austin office of Texas A&M Transportation Institute (KXAN Photo/Matt Grant)

On top of being outdated, some of the state’s maps are just plain confusing, Wood said.

On a PDF road map of metro Austin, Wood pointed out the color-coding system doesn’t make clear if a road is owned and operated by TxTag or CTRMA. It also doesn’t specify which roads are toll roads and which are managed lanes. On toll roads, all free-flowing lanes are tolled, whereas managed lanes only have select lanes in each direction that are tolled, Wood explained.

TxDOT’s “managed lane” maps for the metro areas of Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, El Paso, Houston and San Antonio all show they were last updated in July 2018.

These particular maps are supposed to help motorists understand and locate “managed lane facilities.”

“MoPac Express, that is a tolled lane, one in each direction,” said Wood pointing to MoPac, which is color coded in green on TxDOT’s map. “And, SH 130 — that is all lanes that are tolled — and they’re both on the map the same color.”

Wood said TxDOT should “regularly update” its website and use digital, interactive maps that are user-friendly.

“Unless you’re an engineer like me,” he added, “it’s kind of hard to decipher.”

Technology troubles have been a source of TxTag customer frustration for years. Since 2020, 25% of all TxTag complaints sent to KXAN related to technical problems — things like paying bills, and accessing account information. KXAN found similar complaints of computer and system errors made directly to TxDOT since 2020 about TxTag, which is meant to make paying for tolls across the state easier.

One frustrated driver complained that a TxTag manager said in response to incorrect charges: “the technology is not perfect.”

“If you want people to pay their toll bills, you have to make it easy, intuitive,” Wood said. “Lessen the barriers for people to access that technology.”

Mobile payment apps are one way to make paying bills easier and is considered to be among the “best practices,” according to the International Bridge, Turnpike and Tunnel Association, the worldwide association for toll owners and operators.

“We have seen that agencies that do the best job at collecting tolls have distinguished themselves through … creating payment channels that create new ways for motorists to pay their tolls including retail location networks and mobile payment apps,” an IBTTA representative told KXAN.

The North Texas Tollway Authority and the Harris County Toll Road Authority each have an app, and TxTag tried to get one off the ground, too. In 2018, a mobile app was “in the works” for TxTag. The CEO of the Kansas City-based company, PayIt, announced a partnership at the time with TxDOT to build an “innovative” mobile payment app.

“Mobile is where citizens are and it is important to the [Texas] Department of Transportation to make resources available in the most modern, efficient way,” the CEO and founder of PayIt, John Thomson, said in a 2018 news release. “We are excited to partner with them.”

Screengrab of PayIt news release from 2018 (Courtesy: PRWeb)

In November 2019, the company issued another news release and said the app, named “PayItTolls,” was available for download, touting: “Drivers can now monitor their balances, prepare for trips, and save payment methods for quick one-time payments on the go by using the app — avoiding in-office visits and sending paper checks!”

The app is no longer available. So, what happened?

TxDOT said it awarded PayIt a no-cost contract in 2018, meaning no money was paid to develop an app.

“PayIt submitted a proposal in response to a solicitation that TxDOT posted for mobile applications supporting TxTag customers,” Hammons said in a statement. “PayIt proposed to utilize an App already developed that helps streamline doing business with federal, state and local government through its digital government and payment platform. TxDOT originally awarded PayIt in 2018 for a no-cost contract which means that TxDOT did not pay for any services. The PayIt app was placed on hold as TxTag was working to address back-office system issues.”

The app was “placed on hold” in November of 2020, he said, adding the state’s contract with PayIt expired on March 12, 2022 “and was not renewed.”

“There are no plans to develop an app at this time,” said Hammons.

KXAN sent two emails seeking comment to PayIt but did not hear back.

Wood said if TxDOT reinvested in its technology, it would go a long way to drive down complaints.

“Try to understand how people are using technology. Try to meet them where they’re at,” he said. “Because they are a government agency and, at the end of the day, they’re responsible to the people.”