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At the second of two governor's race debates, Wendy Davis seemed a great deal more relaxed and comfortable.
KERA
At the second of two governor's race debates, Wendy Davis seemed a great deal more relaxed and comfortable.

 

If you only have time to watch one of the three major debates this election cycle, you should make it tonight’s debate in Dallas. If you’re pulling for Wendy Davis to do well, you’ll enjoy it. But it’s worth watching because something strange happened tonight: Like the sky opening up after a monsoon season of turgid talking points, Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott actually took each other on tonight, to a certain extent. And against all odds, something approximating a discussion about policy took place. Call it the Miracle at KERA.

True, the bar was low after the last debate—the state’s first real gubernatorial debate since 2006. (And in Texas, the bar is pretty low anyway.) And we didn’t get off to a promising start—the first question from the panel of moderators asked how Davis and Abbott would respond as governor to the discovery that a man in a hospital in Dallas has Ebola. Both candidates are anti-Ebola, a devastating blow to the state’s pro-disease caucus. “We want to make sure that this Ebola disease does not spread any further,” said Abbott, sagely.

But things got better. Davis and Abbott grappled with each other on two wide fronts—the first, over ethics issues. Davis was asked about her legal work, which she rebuffed and went through the list of accumulated attack lines about Abbott’s tenure as AG. (She gave a stronger refutation of the conflict-of-interest charge after she was pressed.)

But when Abbott was asked (at about 19:45 in the video) about accusations his office helped hide incompetence and mismanagement with Gov. Perry’s Texas Enterprise Fund, he didn’t handle it very well. He offered that the recently issued audit of the fund didn’t single him out for criticism. “From the beginning of my campaign I’ve been questioning this very fund,” he said. (Perhaps, one suspects, because he knew how badly it was being run.) He tried to turn the question back to Davis, but she beat it back forcefully. As to the question of why Abbott’s office helped hide non-existing TEF applications from reporters, he couldn’t really answer.

On the issues, Abbott and Davis made stark distinctions. Neither could really answer a question about how they’d fund their education plans, though Abbott at least had a dollar figure for student spending that made it appear that he had given it some thought. But Davis hit Abbott hard. It was ludicrous, she said, for Abbott to keep saying he would make Texas schools No. 1 while defending huge cuts to funding and refusing to commit to providing more resources.

“Mr. Abbott, you’re talking out of both sides of your mouth,” she said. “You say you want to make Texas No. 1 in education. You cannot accomplish that goal without making the appropriate investments.”

On immigration, Abbott committed, after some pushing, to not vetoing a bill from the Legislature that would eliminate in-state tuition for undocumented migrants. There’s been a question about how Abbott would interact with a Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Killing in-state tuition is one of Patrick’s top priorities, and Abbott’s on board, apparently.

But the best part of the debate might have been the discussion over Medicaid expansion—at about 29:30 in the video above. Medicaid expansion is, quite literally, a matter of life and death, one of the most serious issues in the race. If Medicaid isn’t expanded in Texas, a quantifiable number of people will suffer and die—unnecessarily. But it hasn’t come up in the race as much as it might.

Abbott said he’d ask the feds to give Texas its Medicaid dollars as a block grant to be spent as the state sees fit, which few think is a realistic possibility. He assured listeners that he “wouldn’t bankrupt Texas” by imposing on Texas the “overwhelming Obamacare disaster.”

Davis laid out a forceful argument for Medicaid expansion. “I have to laugh when I hear Mr. Abbott talk about bankrupting Texas,” she said. “Right now Texans are sending their hard-earned tax dollars to the IRS, $100 billion of which will never come back to work for us in our state unless we bring it back. As governor, I will it bring it back. Greg Abbott’s plan is for you to send that tax money to California and New York.” Abbott’s rebuttal left Davis smiling from ear to ear. The whole fairly long exchange is worth watching.

Abbott didn’t have a bad night, per se—though there were a couple of awkward moments that’ll likely be circulating in the coming days—but Davis had a very good one. Will it matter? By the end of the debate, Abbott was already referring to himself as a governor in the present tense—something his campaign’s social media guys didn’t feel the need to correct.

Davis can leave the debate stage of the race feeling pretty good about her performance. There’s just a little over a month to go.

This is your family on fossil fuels...
Fossil Fuels: The Moral Case, Cover Page
This is your family on fossil fuels...

This is a blog about Texas politics, so let’s talk about textile factories in the north of England, and the strong message they send about the total inability of our state’s most significant policy organ to handle cognitive dissonance. Bear with me for a second. (Or for a few minutes.)

Last week, Houston played host to a high-profile conference on energy issues, convened by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which no less a source than Wikipedia describes as a “think tank.” It is the most influential such entity in Texas. The group, with the help of a great deal of corporate money, has the ear of the governor and much of the Legislature. What its legion of analysts say and do matters a great deal to the way Texans live. Sometimes they do valuable work. Sometimes they do bad work.

This being Texas, a respectable think tank needs Big Ideas about energy. The group’s message for the most part—and the message of the Houston conference—is that fossil fuels are Good, and we should use more of them. Even global warming is good, if you look at it in the right light, if you were to stipulate that it’s even happening, which it isn’t.

At TPPF, this wholesome message is mostly propagated these days by Kathleen Hartnett White. Before TPPF, White led the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality from 2001 to 2007. If you lived in Texas in the last decade, it was White’s ostensible responsibility to safeguard your lungs and general well-being, and to carefully weigh and balance those concerns against the demands of economic development—a weighty responsibility.

White has become an energy analyst at a fascinating time. Here’s the crux of Texas’ problem: We’ve discovered a new ocean of gas and oil under the state, which can make a significant number of people here—and to a lesser degree, our cash-strapped state in general—very rich. At the same time, the scientific community is more sure than ever before that burning those fuels will hurt us in very real ways. Some of us can live large now, but many others will pay a heavy price.

How can we navigate these complex questions? Into the rain-sodden arena of doubt drives White, in a coal-rolling Humvee upon which another Humvee has been delicately stacked, like a pair of mating dragonflies. Other conservative thinkers have questioned the economic efficiency of renewable energy. That meeker argument is becoming less powerful every day—even though White still calls renewable energy “parasitic,” unlike, one supposes, the heavily subsidized fossil fuel industry.

White’s flooring the gas pedal. Her magnum opus, “Fossil Fuels: The Moral Case,” takes the position that burning coal and oil is in fact a moral imperative. Coal and oil—cheap energy—led to modern prosperity, White writes, and turning away from them will reduce access to prosperity here and across the globe, with grave consequences.

...and this is your son on solar.
Fossil Fuels: The Moral Case, Page 3
…and this is your son on solar.

It’s an odd argument partially because it’s hard to say what it stands in opposition to. As a contribution to a policy discourse, its existence only makes sense if you believe—as many do, apparently—that environmentalists desperately desire to tear down the power grid and return the human race to agrarian penury.

The question of balancing prosperity with environmental responsibility in poor parts of the world has been a constant subject of debate and discussion in the environmental movement for decades. And the role that coal played in the story of the industrial revolution isn’t exactly contested territory. Furthermore, coal’s role in the creation of modernity says nothing about our ability to find new sources of prosperity—if we, with our amazing ingenuity, built the combustion engine, why can’t we build a better one? Renewable energy is already bringing electricity to parts of the world that have never really had it before—in places like Tanzania, solar panels are a much better option for rural communities than connecting to the inefficient, poorly maintained national power grid.

But White’s been getting a lot of play with the paper—she’s done the rounds with it this summer. White was the star at the climate conference last week, where Rick Perry deigned to speak. And she’s proud of it: When White presented her paper at the Heritage Foundation in June, she told the crowd that writing the paper led her to “some fascinating books,” and that her curious wanderings included the discovery of “a jillion papers in academic journals.”

But her footnotes come from a mix of places: They range from the British tabloid The Daily Mail, an authoritative source on nothing, to the 17th century English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes. White re-reads Hobbes’ Leviathan and concludes that his theoretical concept of a pre-society, pre-government “state of nature” accurately depicts “preindustrial conditions for the average person.” Hm. There are actual journal articles—mostly from other think tankers. But there’s also reference to less auspicious sources.

The paper contains extensive block quotes and citations from The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, a 2011 popular science book by Matt Ridley—otherwise known as Matthew White Ridley, 5th Viscount Ridley, a Conservative Party member of the United Kingdom’s House of Lords. In some circles, Ridley is most famous for helping to tank the British bank Northern Rock, where he served as chairman. Northern Rock’s spectacular implosion in 2007 was one of the precipitating events of the global financial apocalypse. Several years later, Ridley was awarded the Manhattan Institute’s Hayek Prize, for his ongoing contributions to the unimpeachable cause of the free market. In other circles, Ridley is most famous for his viral Ted Talk, “When Ideas Have Sex.” Ridley gave a keynote at the Houston conference.

But in lieu of a longer dissection of the paper, let’s consider White’s weirdest extrapolation of her argument. On page 17, she notes that the abolitionist movement in Britain happened concurrently with coal-fired industrial growth, and posits that the rise of factories “indeed increased and institutionalized compassion.”

In a post on TPPF’s website called “Energy and Freedom,” she expands on her case:

First harnessed in the English Industrial Revolution, fossil fuels spawned unceasing economic growth-an unprecedented productivity of most benefit to the poor until then consigned to poverty and enslavement across the world.

In 1807, the British Parliament finally passed William Wilberforce’s bill to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire. In the same year, the largest industrial complex in the world powered and illuminated by coal opened in Manchester, England. Thus began the century-long process of converting mankind’s industry from the power of muscle, wood, wind, and water to stored solar energy in fossil fuels.

Fossil fuels dissolved the economic justification for slavery.

There’s some bad history in this passage, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a beautiful distillation of a worldview that shuns complexity in all forms.

Sure, there’s a discussion to be had about the reasons for the success of abolitionism in England. Was it a political and social movement, emerging from the Enlightenment, which succeeded in advancing a moral case, or did it happen merely for economic or practical reasons? At any rate, black Britons like Ignatius Sancho and Olaudah Equiano, who were seminal figures in the movement, were active decades before the period White describes. The major first touchstones in the eventual abolition of slavery in the British Empire happened either well before the industrial revolution, or at a point when the industrial revolution was in its absolute infancy.

But the key thing: In tying the abolition of the slave trade to the growth of industrial Manchester, White gets it exactly backwards. The fossil-fueled industrial revolution she’s describing didn’t “dissolve the economic justification for slavery,” it made slavery more lucrative. It made slavery worse.

Here’s why: the new factories in England White describes were producing manufactured goods. Incidentally, many of them—along with many of the touchstones of the industrial revolution, like James Watt’s steam engine—were financed with money from the slave trade. But those factories, most of which were producing textiles, needed raw materials. Foremost among those raw materials was cotton.

Manchester’s new ability to make cheap clothes for the English working class meant that the factories needed a lot more cotton—so demand for the blood-drenched crop exploded. Manchester’s industrial growth was enabled by slavery—something people in the north of England are well aware of. And it fed slavery, too. True, Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1807—but they kept slaves in the colonies until 1833. Afterward, they depended on American slavery. When the fruit of American slavery was finally disrupted at the points of the bayonets of the Army of the Potomac, Northern England plummeted into depression.

As industrial Manchester grew, the American institution of slavery ballooned in scale and scope. In 1800, American slaves produced 156,000 bales of cotton—in 1860, they produced more than 4 million bales. From 1790 to the start of the Civil War, the American slave population likewise multiplied from 700,000 to 4 million, due in large part to new industrial efficiency facilitating demand for cotton—including American contributions like the cotton gin.

Take the words of South Carolinian Thomas Cooper, who warned the British about the price of abolition in 1838. “Every slave in a southern state is an operative for Great Britain. We cannot work rich southern soil by white free labour,” Cooper wrote, “and if you will have Cotton Manufacturers, you must have them based upon slave labour.”

So White got it exactly backwards: The coal-fired industrial revolution exacerbated the problem of slavery. Does that mean that fossil fuels are evil? No, that would be extraordinarily silly—as silly as saying the opposite.

What it does show is that development is a double-edged sword. Things are almost never wholly good, or wholly bad. They’re complicated. They embody complex trade-offs. They have unintended consequences. That’s what the people of Texas asked White to consider when she was the head of TCEQ.

The environmental problems we face today—they are vast, and time for consequential action, knowledgable people tell us, is running short—are very complicated. Texas, as a capital of sorts for global energy development, has an outsized role to play in either our success or failure to cope with them. The people of the state deserve better than meager propaganda. At last week’s summit, in the belly of downtown Houston, White and colleagues got the space to explain to some of Texas’ more powerful people that “America’s energy is the right and moral solution” to the world’s problems.

Modernity—medicine, travel, leisure—is a nice thing. Slowly cooking the planet is not so nice. Helping us navigate trade-offs—taking the measure of the good and the bad of an issue, and finding a path that takes the most of the former and the least of the latter—is the highest possible service intelligent people in public life can render. If think tanks have any role to play, it’s that. But don’t go looking for it at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

getting-life-9781476756820_lgWhen Michael Morton walked out of prison in 2011, it was the close of a story that would put most legal thrillers to shame. Having spent 25 years in jail following a wrongful conviction for the murder of his wife, Morton was finally a free man, and he would eventually see the man who sent him away put—if only briefly—behind bars.

Morton tells that story in his new memoir, Getting Life: An Innocent Man’s 25-Year Journey from Prison to Peace. A review of the book will run in the new Books Issue of the Observer (check this space in early October), and Morton is slated for an appearance (details TBA) at the Texas Book Festival during the weekend of Oct. 25-26. If you’d like to hear what he has to say before that, though, Morton will present the book and speak at Austin’s LBJ Library on Tuesday, Sept. 30. He’ll be joined by Barry C. Scheck, co-founder and co-director of The Innocence Project, the nonprofit that utilizes DNA evidence to help overturn wrongful convictions.

Morton’s story is a remarkable one. He was arrested as the only suspect in the 1986 beating death of his wife in the couple’s home near Austin. Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson was later found to have withheld evidence that could have proved Morton’s innocence. Despite the testimony of his 3-year-old son, who witnessed the crime and claimed that his father wasn’t home at the time, Morton was convicted and given a life sentence. He spent almost a quarter-century behind bars, and was freed only after attorneys affiliated with The Innocence Project ran DNA tests on a bloody bandana found at the crime scene. Test results identified DNA from a known felon, Mark Norwood, who had killed another Texas woman in the time since Morton’s conviction. As a result of The Innocence Project’s work, Morton was exonerated. Anderson was later convicted for withholding evidence and spent five days in jail. .

Morton and Scheck will discuss the events behind Getting Life in a talk moderated by Mark Updegrove, director of the LBJ Library.

Attendance is exclusive to members of the LBJ Library, and costs $10 for their guests. The program includes a book signing prior to the talk and a reception following. Copies of Getting Life will be available for purchase.

smaller perry_Fotor
Gov. Rick Perry with Yao Ming for some reason.

Happy Friday! It’s the day we celebrate the fact that we, as a culture, collectively agree we spend 71 percent of our lives wishing it were the other 29 percent. (To simulate this feeling, people in the service industry should pretend it’s Sunday.)

I hope you’re doing something special tonight, like playing catch with your child as the dusk settles in around you or watching every episode of “BoJack Horseman” in a row and then questioning your life choices. At any rate, I hope you’re doing something more satisfying than what Observer staffers and their ilk were doing last Friday, which was live-tweeting the first (and yet penultimate) soundbite-off between gubernatorial candidates Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott.

I think this tweet from the Houston Chronicle’s Matt Schwartz sums it up nicely:

small tweet

Christopher Hooks and Forrest Wilder gave a rundown of the substance and significance of the event, but I’m interested in the language. If last Friday you were, I don’t know, finally finishing that novel you’ve been working on, this is the level of discourse you missed. When asked how he would improve the speed of veterans’ medical service, Abbott listed the veterans in his and his wife’s families. “She had an uncle who served in the Army during World War II,” he said. Informative! Then Abbott asserted boldly, “The men and women who serve on the front line should not have to be pushed to the back of the line when it comes to their health care needs.”

Jon Stewart slow clap

[Keith Olbermann voice] So military support staff should go to the back of the line? Is that what you’re saying, sir? That we should create a hierarchy of access to medical treatment based on physical proximity to the front lines? Where does that leave women veterans who’ve historically been denied access to front-line duty? And why didn’t any of your family serve in World War I? Are you not proud of them? What kind of a name is Abbott, anyway—Austro-Hungarian?

The closest thing to drama came when Davis tried to respond to Abbott’s rebuttal on a question about education funding. (Note: she spoke after, not over, him.) The rules prohibited this—nobody wants this to turn into a whole “debate,” okay lady?—but Davis kept talking for a full 13 seconds after a moderator tried to shut her down. That’s an hour and a half in male politician crosstalk time. She was controlled and direct and spoke in exactly the same pitch and volume as before, so naturally, Davis-haters dubbed it a “meltdown.” The term got enough traction that Ken Herman of the Austin American-Statesman titled his Tuesday column, “Wendy Davis reaction not a ‘meltdown.'”

But it wasn’t enough buzz for said haters, who got mad that the The New York Times and Politico didn’t cover the debate. “If Abbott had pulled a similar disgraceful stunt on Davis, it would be national news. Abbott would be portrayed as having come unglued and perhaps even as a sexist if he had pointed his finger at her as she did at him,” whined Tom Blumer at NewsBusters.org.

Right. Because there’s nothing sexist about calling a woman’s firm defiance a “meltdown.”

Obama eye roll

(And hey, Tom, here’s the Wikipedia page for false equivalence. That should get you started.)

In Portuguese, there’s a word for things like the Davis-Abbott debate: chato. It means, roughly, “boring and annoying at the same time.” There were ways to spice it up, though. If you decided to drink every time Abbott said “Obama,” you’re probably just sobering up. (Nine timesyes, reporting!) You could also have read the stream of tweets mentioning Davis.

Ron throwing computer away

Nevermind, don’t do that.

But that was last week. That was a forum where both sides wanted to appeal to the state’s 14 moderate voters. This week offered more conventional WTF fodder: Ted Cruz showing he’s all about that base. At the Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C. Friday, he warned, “These are dangerous, extreme, radical times” and said Democrats are “an extreme, radical party.” (Which is what I’m throwing at my house tonight. Hey-o!)

Amid Bible quotes, personal stories and a call to abolish the IRS (nice non-extreme-being!) Cruz also, notes the Daily Beast, “offered unattributed quotes from Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, telling the crowd that the GOP ‘need[s] to offer a choice, not an echo’ and that ‘we don’t paint in pale pastels, we paint in bold colors.’” (Who’s his speechwriter, Fareed Zakaria? Hey-o!)

[Ed. note: Stop doing that.]

Still, Gov. Rick Perry may have won at this week’s WTF-ery not by what he said but what he didn’t say. According to the remarks posted on his official site, Perry prepared 1,615 words to say to the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Energy and Climate Policy Summit, but not one of those words was “climate.”

He did, however, say that through 14 years of governance, “standing by my side along the way” was TPPF, a non-profit, non-partisan research institute. Aww.

Rather than acknowledging the existence of even a conversation about climate change, Perry fixated on Russia and his plan to beat Putin by… exporting natural gas.

“With the natural gas we now produce, we can help liberate our European allies from Russian energy aggression,” he said. “Energy is a weapon in the hands of aggressors. So I say, if energy is going to be used as a weapon, America should always have the largest arsenal. The arsenal of American energy will not, however, be used to bully other nations, but set them free.”

Oh good! More liberating! And setting free! America hasn’t liberated anybody in— [covers mic] (What was that? Again?? …okay.) Well, you can never spread too much liberty.

So this weekend, enjoy your liberties. Take liberties. Hell, be libertines. A lot of people will keep saying a lot of dumb stuff, and some of it will matter, and some of it won’t, but if it does, we’ll catch you up on it Monday. That’s our job. Is it dusk yet? No? Go sit outside and wait. It’ll come.

HPD Chief McClelland
HPD Chief Charles McClelland

The Houston Police Department has had a terrible year. For several months now, a parade of exposés has tromped forth from local media, documenting sundry bad acts and drawing fresh attention to HPD’s ineffective discipline system. In each case, HPD officials have claimed (predictably) that the misbehavior in question is rare and being punished appropriately and isn’t tolerated, etc. But a quick trip through the Observer’s HPD discipline files shows that’s not true.

Take the most recent scandal. Last week, HPD Chief Charles McClelland announced that prosecutors would dismiss more than 6,000 speeding tickets written by four officers under investigation for allegedly falsifying citations to earn overtime pay for testifying in court. That’s scandalous enough that Newser.com picked up the story, but it’s also nothing new for Houston. In 2012, four veteran HPD officers were found to have been pulling the same scheme for years, netting almost $1 million in overtime pay. Not one of those officers was fired.

Or look at the April report of two HPD lieutenants removed from duty for allegedly sexually harassing their female subordinates. “Swift action is taken every time on sexual harassment,” Ray Hunt, the president of the police officers’ union, told the Houston Chronicle.

But not really. In May 2008, officer Jaime Vera was suspended for 60 days (an extremely rare punishment) for what’s described in HPD documents as “a confrontation with his wife” that resulted in a police report. Vera also had to sign a “Last Chance Agreement,” stating he understood and accepted that if he committed even the most minor infraction, he’d be fired. Then, in August, Vera was suspended for 15 days for sexually harassing a fellow female officer, including leaving his beat while on duty to continue harassing her. Why wasn’t Vera fired as the agreement said he would be? Because he had committed sexual harassment prior to May—that is, before signing the agreement. Not exactly swift, nor just. Vera was eventually fired for trying to pay off mechanics to pass the inspection of his flawed car.

As for the two HPD lieutenants suspended for harassment, both of them (ages 50 and 55) were allowed to retire and keep their pensions of more than $85,000 a year.

Probably the most serious recent scandal is the case of Ryan Chandler, one of eight HPD detectives disciplined in April for failing to properly investigate more than two dozen homicides including the shooting death of an 11-month-old girl. HPD Internal Affairs, reported the Chronicle, “revealed investigators and supervisors shirking the most basic requirements of police work: failing to show up at crime scenes, misplacing key evidence, not attempting to interview witnesses or follow up on tips.”

This behavior will sound familiar to Observer readers who caught our investigation of the HPD discipline system last year. We showed that cops who abandoned crime scenes, ignored victims, lost evidence, lied to superiors, forged signatures, stalked their exes and sexually harassed coworkers kept their jobs.

In large part, this was (and is) because the HPD discipline process has a built-in escape hatch at the end: arbitration. Any suspension of three days or more—including indefinite suspension, aka getting fired—is automatically eligible for binding arbitration by an outside party. That means after a labyrinthine six-month internal affairs investigation, if the complaint against you is one of the mere 7 percent that result in a serious punishment, an outsider will review it over a couple of days and can change it.

And change they do. An Observer analysis found that in two-thirds of the cases, arbitrators reduce an officer’s punishment or overturn it completely. The police chief can fire a bad cop, but he can’t make sure he stays fired.

Chandler, the detective responsible for 16 of the neglected homicides and the only officer fired in the scandal, is trying to get his job back. An arbitrator heard his case earlier this month and has months to decide on a ruling. Meanwhile, convictions for serious crimes that Chandler helped investigate may be jeopardized because one of the many violations HPD determined that Chandler committed was lying.

At the arbitration hearing, Chief McClelland said that was the bottom line for why Chandler should not return to the force. But the arbitrator may not agree with him.

In 2008, Officer Cynthia Marino lied under oath about a controlled drug buy, got fired, and was reinstated by an arbitrator.

In 2010, Officer Carlos Lerma was fired for repeatedly lying about the presence of a second officer at controlled drug buys, including forging another officer’s signature. He was also reinstated with just a 15-day suspension, already served. Like all officers returned to the force by arbitrators, Lerma received back pay for the period he spent fired.

In 2000, Sr. Police Officer Joseph Brashier was suspended for four days for lying and misconduct but kept his job. In 2008, he was suspended for 90 days for, among other things, repeatedly stalking and harassing his estranged wife for months in violation of a restraining order. Still, he kept his job. (There were several other incidents over the years, but these are the highlights.) Finally in 2010 Brashier was fired over an apparent illegal towing scheme. But an arbitrator reinstated him with just a 10-day suspension.

Clearly, HPD is ripe for reform, and Chief McClelland has been more active and open than his predecessors about trying to combat police misconduct. For example, he recently announced plans to equip 3,500 officers with body cameras over the next three years. But while individual (or clusters of) bad actors can be chalked up to scale—HPD does have about 5,400 officers, after all—a system that tolerates and retains and even hires them back, sometimes with a nice cash bonus, cannot. HPD has a discipline problem. What will it take to admit it?

Speakers at a conservative green energy panel held at the Paramount Theater in Austin.
Carl Lindemann
Speakers at a conservative green energy panel held at the Paramount Theater in Austin.

 

Tucker Eskew is no stranger to thankless tasks. Eskew was the Republican operative who, in 2008, had the honor of tutoring Sarah Palin on being a vice-presidential candidate. Now, he’s ready to take the heat from fellow Republicans for tackling climate change and championing green energy. Eskew and a crew of fellow conservative green activists brought their mission to Austin yesterday for a lightly attended event. Billed as “a fresh conservative take on energy policy,” the summit attracted about 60 people to the Paramount Theater downtown.

“Remember the saying ‘I was country before country was cool’?” Eskew said. “Some Republicans picked that up and said ‘I was conservative before conservative was cool.’ Maybe one day, we’ll look back on this event and realize we were clean energy conservatives before it was cool.”

The hopeful message is certainly a far cry from today’s “drill, baby, drill!” conservatism. But if the movement—if you can call it that yet—is simply out to swap oil and coal for gas and nuclear, it could be seen as another variation of business as usual. But the speakers seemed eager to break some conservative taboos.

Among the panelists: former Texas Republican state Sen. Kip Averitt, now head of the Texas Clean Energy Coalition; Debbie Dooley, founder of the Green Tea Coalition and national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots; former six-term Congressman Bob Inglis (R-South Carolina); and Eli Lehrer of conservative think tank R Street Institute.

“What we’re looking for are energy optimists and climate realists,” Inglis said. Though there’s no certainty in climate science, Inglis said, the risks of doing nothing are real. “And what are you going to do in the face of that risk? Proceed pell-mell, or…buy an insurance policy?”

Implacable climate skeptics need to face the political realities, he said. “If conservatives don’t step forward and say, ‘Have we got an idea for you! End all the subsidies [for oil, gas and nuclear], attach all the costs to all the fuels, and watch the free enterprise system sort this all out,’” then Democrats will go forward with their own solutions.

But Republicans face their own political risks for acting on climate change.

“We have a whole boatload of [Texas Republicans] that want to do the right thing, but they have to tip-toe around it. They get timid. They get scared because, quite frankly, they’re afraid of the tea party,” said Averitt, who served as the chair of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources for nearly a decade.

Meanwhile, the fossil fuel lobby maintains its grip in Texas. As a counterpoint to the clean energy confab, the right-wing Texas Public Policy Foundation is hosting its own energy and climate policy summit in Houston this week featuring appearances by GOP ticket-toppers Rick Perry and Dan Patrick. The foundation, which is funded by fossil fuel interests, has been an extraordinarily harsh critic of renewable energy.

“Renewable energy is unreliable and parasitic,” wrote Kathleen Hartnett White, a former chair of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the head of the foundation’s energy-policy wing, in a 36-page paper she recently released making a “moral case” for fossil fuels. No one in the conservative climate realist camp appears to be on the agenda for the conference this week.

But Dooley says the mood is changing. Some tea partiers, she said, are ready to take a stand, even against Koch-funded front groups like Americans for Prosperity.

“Americans for Prosperity is not tea party,” Dooley said. To combat the Koch party line, conservatives need to change the way they talk about energy.

“Talk about free markets, national security,” she said. “There’s nothing more vulnerable to terrorist attack than our centralized [power] grid. Well, it’s harder to attack rooftop solar.”

Eskew argued that the current frenzy surrounding Uber—the ride-share service that’s operating illegally in a number of cities, including Austin—offers a compelling comparison for how free markets could reshape the energy sector. Eskew compared ride-share services to rooftop solar power. Both pose fundamental challenges to highly regulated, staid industries (taxis and utilities, respectively) but provide direct benefits to the consumer.

“Let’s look at [Uber] from the perspective of the driver, not the consumer. The driver makes a capital expense purchasing the car, then is able to sell back excess capacity into the transportation grid. Isn’t that like solar power?”

For the United States to effectively combat climate change, conservatives will have to make an extremely difficult about-face. Still, the event yesterday hinted at the possibility of such a radical transformation. Katherine Lorenz, president and treasurer of the Mitchell Foundation, a co-sponsor of the event, was on hand. That’s Mitchell as in George Mitchell, known as the “father of fracking.” According to Lorenz, who is Mitchell’s granddaughter, the current shale boom has temporarily eclipsed his true legacy.

“Despite being in the oil and gas industry and having so many of his peers and colleagues think he was nuts… he was also deeply committed to environmental issues,” she said. “That’s really emblematic of what’s going on with clean energy and the environment today. We need more people to stand up for what they believe, who understand that what the rest of their party, peers and colleagues are saying might not be the right way for the Earth.”

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Legislative Budget Board
A handy how-to guide to the state budget.

These months of committee hearings in the run-up to the next session of the Texas Legislature are like the dropping of a bomb. The hearings started, months ago, with the view from 30,000 feet, and the limitless possibilities of the unborn 84th in all its tea party splendor. As time goes by and we get closer to the end of the year, legislators will still have moments to consider the big, abstract questions of state government, but the features of the terrain below are starting to come into view. When January 13, 2015 hits—zero hour—time will compress, deadlines will appear and the legislators will be left with a bloody, sticky brawl.

The most important of these meetings are the get-togethers of the Senate Committee on Finance, which, guided by its new-ish chair state Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), will face the unenviable task of cobbling together a budget. The committee has been meeting intermittently to get an idea of the contours of the state’s fiscal situation, with the help of the Legislative Budget Board. Today, the committee members heard from the LBB on the major items in the state budget—education, transportation, Medicaid, etc. The board’s packet, for those interested, can be found here.

Here’s the key thing: The Legislature is going to get a fairly substantial pot of new money next session. The economy is going swimmingly, tax revenues are up and there’s a small fortune in oil and gas revenue heading in the Capitol’s direction. That boon has left some wondering what they can get for it.

GOP lt. governor nominee Dan Patrick, who hopes to take control of the Senate in January, will want to have his own fun—his first year with the gavel will be a time for him to leave his mark. He’s talked about altering Texas’ tax system—he’d like to see sales taxes displace the state’s property tax structure. And he’d like to develop a voucher program to help kids in public schools go to private schools. If he wants to do either of those things, it would help greatly to have a surplus in his back pocket.

But look more closely at the emerging state budget, as the committee did today, and the fiscal picture is not quite as rosy. The major pieces of the budget pie—public education, health and human services, higher education, transportation—already aren’t in great health and are going to need quite a bit more money next session just to hold steady. To simply keep up with enrollment, the state’s public education system is going to need $2.2 billion more—and that’s without any funding increase. It seems unlikely in the short- to medium-term that Texas is going to get back to pre-2011 funding levels, when the Legislature cut $5.4 billion from public ed.

There’s trouble in the higher education and Medicaid budgets too. Higher ed spending still lags levels from prior to deep cuts in 2011. Today, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) asked what it would take to fully restore funding. The Legislative Budget Board representatives said they’d get back to her. On Medicaid, state Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown), the new chairman of Senate Health and Human Services, worried that 720,000 “eligible but unenrolled” people could sign up for Medicaid, significantly increasing costs.

Nelson, Schwertner’s predecessor on Health and Human Services, talked a bit about the need to further squeeze the state’s Medicaid program for savings. (No one really considered the possibility of accepting federal money.) “It’s eating up—it’s squeezing out everything else,” Nelson said. “We can’t do anything about caseload. It is what it is.” So more cost containment measures were needed, the reduction of “fraud and waste.” It’s unclear how much money can be realistically recouped that way, especially after years of those efforts.

On the question of transportation, senators were told that the system needed $5 billion more just to keep things at the current level of congestion—$1 billion of that just for crumbling roads in the oil patch.

State Sen. Robert Nichols, chair of Senate Transportation, told the committee that the amount of money the Texas Department of Transportation was spending for “debt service is greater than what we’re adding in terms of new [transportation] capacity.” Nelson: “That’s crazy.”

Last session, the Legislature narrowly passed a proposal to divert half of the oil and gas tax revenue going into the so-called Rainy Day Fund to state transportation funding—about $1.2 billion a year. The constitutional amendment goes to the voters as Proposition 1 on the November ballot. Getting that legislation through the Lege was like pulling teeth, yet much more might be needed. State Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston): “It’s amazing that with Prop 1, we’re only doing a third of what they expect us to do.”

Eighteen members of the 2015 class were present today: 15 sitting senators, plus probable future senators Van Taylor, Paul Bettencourt and Bob Hall. With the new senators in mind, perhaps, Whitmire took two extended interludes to tout the benefits of the two-thirds rule, which Dan Patrick has promised to nuke when he gets to office.

The two-thirds rule requires the consent of 21 senators to bring a bill to the floor—it’s long been leverage for Democrats, and Patrick wants a more pliable chamber. If the rule is retired, Dems have nothing—and the Senate will look a lot more like the contentious special sessions of last summer. But Whitmire tried to sell the room on the rule from a different angle.

“Rural members need a two-thirds rule to make sure we provide for services like farm-to-market roads,” he said. “If you want to make sure you have a state transportation system” that services all parts of the state “you better have a budget 21 senators can support.” If the rule was eliminated, he said, and the state faced a transportation hole of billions, you’d see urban senators from Houston and Dallas conspiring to cut funding for rural roads to keep their own highways paved.

Nelson chided him for going off-topic, but he returned to it later to say much the same thing. In the audience, Charles Perry, recently picked by voters in a special election to represent Lubbock in the Senate, seemed to nod his head along with Whitmire’s exhortation, while Van Taylor, who’ll soon represent suburban Plano, seemed to shake it. On the right flank of the panel of sitting senators, Sens. Eltife, Schwertner and Hancock chuckled at Whitmire. Were they laughing because of Whitmire’s charm and insistence, or because they knew it was futile? We’ll find out in January.

Immigrants marching for immigration reform in Austin.
Priscila Mosqueda
March for Immigration reform in Austin

Because of the government’s failure to reform immigration laws, faith leaders said Wednesday in a press call with media that they are building a new nationwide sanctuary movement and urging churches across the country to offer shelter to immigrants facing deportation.

The rebirth of the sanctuary movement began in Arizona in May when 36-year-old Daniel Neyoy Ruiz, who was born in Mexico, sought refuge in the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson. After nearly a month of living in the church, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials granted Neyoy Ruiz a one-year reprieve from deportation.

Currently, Rosa Robles Loreto, a mother of two young boys, is living at the Tucson church trying to fight her deportation to Mexico. Robles said she has lived in Tucson for the last 15 years. “My goal is to stay with my husband and children because they need me,” she said in the press call today. “My struggle goes further than from my immediate family, and it is a call and a national petition so that others can also have hope and establish their lives here, where we have already lived for so long.”

Arizona, specifically Tucson, was the birthplace of the sanctuary movement in the 1980s when thousands of Central Americans fleeing civil wars sought asylum in the United States. Many of the refugees were detained in prisons then deported to their war-torn countries where the U.S. was involved in providing funding and weapons to governments and forces viewed as anti-communist. The founding of the movement is credited in part to Rev. John Fife, minister at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson. Fife spurred other religious leaders to defy federal immigration laws and offer sanctuary to refugees at churches, spurring a powerful resistance movement that spread to Texas and other states.

In the press call Wednesday, faith leaders said the violence many immigrants are facing back home is just as dire as it was more than 30 years ago. They said the current movement is rapidly growing, from two churches in Arizona to 24 congregations promising sanctuary and another 60 faith-based groups offering support.

Rev. Noel Andersen, grassroots coordinator with Church World Service, a faith-based humanitarian agency, said faith leaders are reaching out to Texas congregations to join the movement but none have accepted yet. “We don’t have anyone in Texas but that could change in the coming weeks,” he said.

Rev. Alison Harrington of Southside Presbyterian said the deportations are destroying families across the country. Each day, the U.S. government deports at least 1,000 people, according to government statistics. “In Arizona we have witnessed again and again the destruction of families through inhumane deportation practices. Responding to the commands of our faith to love our neighbors, congregations throughout the state are declaring sanctuary for undocumented individuals like Rosa Robles Loreto who have final orders of deportation.”

Congressman Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Tucson, blamed elected officials for failing to act on comprehensive immigration reform. “The system has to be fixed,” he said. “There’s been nothing but cowardice on the part of House leadership who won’t even allow a vote on the Senate bill that while flawed deserves a vote.” Grijalva also blamed President Obama for delaying his executive action on immigration until after the election. “It was the wrong move,” he said. “The sanctuary movement is a response to the lack of action. It is a response to the humanity of the issue. And I think it is going to be a cornerstone in pushing the decency of the American people to demand of its elected officials to do something.”

Faith leaders who took part in the announcement included: Rabbi Linda Holtzman of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, Rev. Julian DeShazier of University Church Chicago, Rev. Alison Harrington of Southside Presbyterian Church, Rev. Gradye Parsons, the highest elected official in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A as well as Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona’s 3rd District.

The group said that sanctuary is currently being provided to immigrants in Phoenix, Tucson, Chicago and Portland. Churches in the following cities are providing support: Boston, Chicago, Denver, Kansas City, New York, Oakland, Portland, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Seattle and Tucson.

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George P. Bush

When Breitbart Texas, the Lone Star “vertical” of the right-wing news and commentary site Breitbart.com, launched in February, I was privileged to be one of its first targets. The site ran what I believe it was trying to pass as a smear piece about my abortion politics.

“Ms. Grimes doesn’t just want abortion,” wrote then-columnist and self-described “Breitbart protégé” Lee Stranahan, about my work for the site RH Reality Check. “She wants it freely available and she wants the state to pay for it.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself. Except when I say it, there tends to be quite a bit more cussing. Perhaps that’s why Breitbart printed the piece—plucked from my extremely public Twitter feed—with this pearl-clutching advisory: “LANGUAGE WARNING: ANDREA GRIMES UNCENSORED.”

Stranahan kindly warned me on Twitter that a storm would soon be brewing about me. He implored his readers to “please treat [me] civilly.” But I heard nary a peep from any of them. I didn’t even get any nice church ladies threatening to pray for me.

Whither the Breitbart Texas storm?

When Breitbart Texas launched last winter, Managing Editor Brandon Darby claimed the site was poised to “bring a voice to grassroots Texans,” and to “arm Texans … with the information they need to stand up against the institutional Left.”

Ten months later, I’m still wondering: Where’s the storm? As yet, the site hasn’t exposed the dark-blue underbelly of mainstream Texas journalism. Rather, Breitbart Texas has imported an inside-the-Beltway model of smear “journalism” that’s blatantly partisan, enthusiastically flakkish and of a type not commonly seen here in Texas. Breitbart Texas has positioned itself as a sympathetic ear and attendant mouthpiece for right-wing communications cronies tasked with grinding their bosses’ axes.

Case in point: This summer, The Texas Tribune quoted George P. Bush—currently running for Texas land commissioner—talking about coastal erosion in the same sentence as climate change, as if he believed the two might be related. It was a horrifying instance of a Texas Republican saying something that vaguely recognized the existence of climate change.

Within 72 hours, a Breitbart Texas writer fresh off a gig at the right-wing think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation stumbled upon an “exclusive” with the P. Bush campaign, running a convoluted attempt to reconstruct what P. Bush had really meant in his Tribune interview. That proved awkward given that the Trib had posted a transcript online.

But Breitbart’s Sarah Rumpf plunged ahead with her scoop anyway, writing,  “Bush’s comments and positions have been seriously misrepresented.” The headline? Rendered in CAPS LOCK, as are all Breitbart headlines: “REPORTER MISREPRESENTED GEORGE P. BUSH CLIMATE CHANGE INTERVIEW.”

Typically, a serious misrepresentation is the kind of thing that merits a conversation with the reporter and/or the editor. It’s something news outlets might consider addressing with a correction or a follow-up.

But Tribune Editor Emily Ramshaw told me via email that they “haven’t heard from George P. Bush or his campaign staff about the story or the transcript, and generally [they] would immediately if someone took issue with the story.”

Generally, that is, if right-wing campaigns were playing by old Texas media rules, rather than crying foul to a more malleable partisan site. As the Observer’s Chris Hooks noted in September, Bush didn’t need to try to “undo” his statements with a Trib correction: “Breitbart will do it for him.”

I asked Breitbart Texas’ Darby whether Rumpf has an knack for reading the hivemind of the P. Bush operation, or if this was an engineered smear from the campaign. He didn’t reply.

In the absence of a definitive explanation, Breitbart Texas appears itself to be guilty of the right-wing version of the very crimes it accuses the “institutional Left’s” Obummer-worshiping media lapdogs of committing. And at the same time, the site proved itself not loyal to the unruly right-wing grassroots, but rather to the Bush family.

Breitbart Texas: a little thunder and lightning but no rain. Didn’t anyone tell ’em we’re in a drought?

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