Texas legislators of all political stripes have agreed on at least one thing during the 84th legislative session: the need to expand the state’s limited pre-K program.
But, when it comes to just how much to expand pre-K—whether to pony up for full-day pre-K programs or settle for a half-day option—there is less accord.
This divide was on display during Tuesday’s standing-room-only, marathon meeting of the House Committee on Public Education. The committee debated six pre-K bills, but Rep. Dan Huberty’s House Bill 4—the most likely to pass out of committee—got the most attention.
HB 4 would provide an additional $130 million for school districts across the state to improve pre-K programs. Currently districts are required to offer half-day pre-K to English language learners as well as homeless, foster and low-income students—about 225,000 students at a cost of $800 million.
Some say that HB 4, while a step in the right direction, doesn’t go far enough . They’d like to see the state provide enough funding for districts to offer full-day programs.
“It’s crucial to try to get to full-day [pre-K] as soon as possible,” said Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) as he laid out House Bill 1100.
Coauthored with Rep. Marsha Farney (R-Georgetown), HB 1100 would provide funding to districts that offer full-day programs, provided they limit class sizes and train teachers.
Research has shown that students in quality full-day pre-K programs outperform their peers in half-day programs on assessments of social-emotional skills, math and language.
Huberty defended his bill as “a first step.”
Dozens of people, including several superintendents, testified in favor of increasing pre-K funding—most of them advocating for full-day pre-K.
The Obama administration has made full-day pre-K for low-income students a top education priority, and dozens of states have expanded spending on early childhood education. Last month, Gov. Greg Abbott named early education one of five emergency legislative items.
In 2011, the Legislature cut $300 million in early education funding. During today’s hearing, Huberty acknowledged that HB 4 would only replace about a third of that.
CORRECTION: Rep. Eric Johnson’s first name previously was incorrect in the story above. It has been updated.
Sen. Jose Rodriguez, Sen. Sylvia Garcia and Sen. Kirk Watson speak at a press conference Monday morning.
Update: Senate Bill 185 has been rescheduled for Monday, March 16 at 8 a.m.
Original: The Senate Border Security Subcommittee adjourned after just six minutes Monday morning as senators delayed a hearing on legislation that would outlaw “sanctuary cities.” Some Democrats were frustrated that the hearing, which was publicly scheduled on Friday, was called with such little notice, especially since the bill is so controversial.
Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) made a procedural move called “tagging” to require at least 48 hours advance notice of the hearing. He said that the last-minute scheduling of Senate Bill 185 violated Senate rules. Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston) said in a press conference later that many Texans would have come had they been given proper notice.
SB 185 would prohibit local government from adopting policies blocking police and other authorities from inquiring about immigration status; assisting federal immigration agents in enforcement; or allowing federal authorities to operate in local jails.
The term “sanctuary cities” has no legal meaning, but is commonly used to describe cities that prohibit local law enforcement from inquiring about a person’s immigration status. Some police departments as well as immigrant rights groups say that laws such as SB 185 discourage cooperation with the police and encourage racial profiling. Rodriguez says that Texans don’t want their state to become Arizona, where the notorious SB 1070 passed in 2010.
“We don’t want to become a ‘show me your papers’ state,” Rodriguez said.
He says that “anti-immigrant” proposals like SB 185 should be rejected on economic, legal and moral grounds.
In 2011, Gov. Rick Perry declared sanctuary cities an emergency item, helping to expedite legislation similar to SB 185. The legislation was met with opposition by both business leaders and immigrant rights groups, and failed to get enough votes in the Senate.
Lynn Godsey, president of the Hispanic Evangelical Ministerial Alliance, said in the press conference today that it was a “bad move” to try to slip this hearing through so hastily. He promised to bring hundreds of people to the next hearing on SB 185, which hasn’t been rescheduled. Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury), the committee chair, said that the committee probably won’t hear SB 185 next week and didn’t know when the committee might revisit the bill.
Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) said that “because of the way this has played out this morning” he hopes that other legislators will go out of their way to “make sure there’s a complete and robust discussion” during the next hearing on this issue.
“Something of this importance—if you believe in it, then let’s have a full debate,” Watson said.
The new chair of the Texas GOP says if his hometown newspaper ever publishes a photo of a same-sex couple kissing, he’ll cancel his subscription.
Texas Republicans on Saturday selected Tom Mechler, an Amarillo businessman who’s served as the party’s treasurer since 2010, to succeed Steve Munisteri, who stepped down as GOP chair to become a senior advisor to Sen. Rand Paul’s presidential campaign.
Mechler beat out Dallas County GOP Chair Wade Emmert, former Harris County GOP Chair Jared Woodfill and Republican National Committeeman Robin Armstrong in the race to replace Munisteri.
In a column for the Amarillo Globe-News last March, Mechler responded to LGBT activists who objected to a local gym’s refusal to offer a family membership to a same-sex couple.
“We have gone way past the point of reason in the attack by homosexual activists and other liberals who want to manipulate society to serve their purpose,” Mechler wrote. “One of the problems we are experiencing in our nation is that if you say you believe in the biblical definition of marriage (which I do), or if you express an opinion that liberals determine as being politically incorrect, they will attack you—sometimes viciously—frequently making threats against your life and property. They call your comments and thoughts homophobic or hate speech.”
Nevertheless, the outcome of Saturday’s election likely could have been worse for the LGBT community. Woodfill, an anti-gay activist, is suing Houston Mayor Annise Parker over her decision to extend benefits to the same-sex spouses of employees, as well as over the city’s rejection of a petition aimed at repealing an equal rights ordinance. But the outcome also probably could have been better. Emmert has attended meetings of the Log Cabin Republicans, and has questioned the party’s decision to deny the LGBT group a booth at last year’s convention.
Last year, Munisteri provided a glimmer of hope that party leadership was inching forward on LGBT rights, when he responded to the controversy over a GOP plank endorsing “ex-gay” therapy by saying he didn’t believe it was possible for people to change their orientation. But Mechler doesn’t appear poised to continue that progress.
Mechler told the Austin American-Statesman he’ll push to expand the party’s appeal to minorities. But according to his column in the Globe-News, it’s questionable whether that includes gays—at least if they want to get married or even just lock lips.
“I believe that everyone in our country has a right to protection of his or her person and property, and their personal lifestyle choice doesn’t make them a bad person. I also strongly believe that states have a right to decide the issue of marriage,” Mechler wrote in the column. “As a final note, if the Amarillo Globe-News ever publishes a picture of two men or two women kissing each other, I will cancel my subscription.”
The problem with government is that it needs money to run, and that money has to come from somewhere. But people like money more than they like giving it to the government, which is held to be bad by a growing number of people. The social contract in general has taken a bit of a beating recently, thanks in part to successive generations of politicians who have promised the people that the government doesn’t need all that much money after all, and that if they make it to City Hall or the Legislature or Congress, they’ll take a lot less of that money, and schools and roads and fire departments will materialize from fairy dust.
So goes the 84th Legislature. Blessed with a decent surplus this year, legislators and new officeholders, who feel a strong need to reward their bases, are struggling to figure out how much they can offer in tax cuts. The zeal for cutting taxes is so intense that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott have been outbidding each other like they’re at an auction—the former said $4 billion, the latter $4.4 billion, and now, thanks to the Senate, we’re at $4.6 billion. Other tax-cutting bills would push the number far above that.
But members of the Lege, including Patrick, are now coming to terms with the fact that they can’t fulfill the promises they’re making without shorting other budget needs or employing trick-budget math. At this point, it seems likelier that they’ll do either—or both—rather than back down on the size of their promised cuts.
This week included three hearings of the Senate Committee on Finance, responsible for most of the tax-cut agitation. The hearings amounted to a sort of tax-cutting roleplay in which Senators got to fulminate against the government’s power to raise revenue while they also expressed indignation and irritation at those, including a few Republicans, who urged the Lege to slow its roll.
Most of the talk centered around the slashing—and perhaps, the eventual abolition—of two taxes responsible for a lot of the state’s revenue, property taxes and franchise taxes. Property tax cuts are perhaps the most significant politically: Texans, and especially the kinds of Texans who voted Patrick and others into office, are mad as hell about their property tax bills.
Though the proposed property tax cuts would put a substantial dent in state government, they might amount to only $100 to $200 year for the average Texan. Still, emphasized state Sen. Kelly Hancock (R-North Richland Hills), that money means something to the “neediest among us.” State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) urged Senators to consider the compounding nature of those savings from year to year.
Democrats on the committee were skeptical of the cuts in general, but some are trying to push the Legislature to make “good” cuts—state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), for example, is pushing a larger homestead exemption. But even some Republicans on the committee expressed unease at the cuts. State Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) worried that they would leave the state with too little revenue to make needed investments. But it was state Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler) who provided the strongest dissenting voice.
“I’m a numbers guy,” Eltife said. “I can’t vote for a tax cut without knowing how we’re going to pay for everything.” Eltife has already been singled out by conservative activists for his unwillingness to go all-in on tax cuts, so his outspoken reticence on Monday was notable. In particular, he worried that the tax cuts would leave too little room under the “spending cap,” the artificial constitutional restraint that limits how much the Lege can grow spending from biennium to biennium.
This year, the state has been promised additional revenue by the comptroller’s office that it can’t touch because of the spending cap—about $6 billion dollars, no small chunk of change. So legislators will either have to vote to violate the spending cap, which would be a very unpopular move with conservative activists, or find themselves constrained in the amount of money they can use this year. The tax cuts would take out a big chunk of that available money.
“My concern is that the money left under the spending cap won’t be enough to fill the needs of the state,” Eltife said. He asked Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), the chair of the finance committee, if she would would consider busting the spending cap for her tax cut package. She’d “consider anything,” she said. It was “ridiculous” that the budget rules treated tax cuts like normal spending, she added, for reasons that weren’t entirely explained.
But Nelson seemed piqued at the criticism, and other senators brusquely dismissed it. The critics were spoiling the party. “We have spent four weeks talking about spending needs,” Nelson said. “I would like three days for tax relief.” Was that so much to ask? Bettencourt warned his colleagues to fall back. “Elections have consequences,” he said. The governor had called for cuts. So grab the hacksaw and get in line. Still, Nelson acknowledged that the budget math was going to be “tight.”
So on Wednesday, a gimmick descended. Evidently, Eltife had been talking to the leadership about his spending cap concern. Patrick, Nelson, Eltife and state Sen. Chuy Hinojosa (D-McAllen) held a press conference with a proposal: They’d ask the voters to approve a constitutional amendment allowing the Lege to use revenue above the spending cap to cut taxes or pay down debt. No other uses would be allowed.
“We have more money on hand than we believe any Legislature has ever had at one moment,” said Patrick. But “there is no support for exceeding the spending cap.” So they would ask the voters to bust the spending cap for them: “Gosh darn, we know our businesses and taxpayers need tax relief,” he said. “But because of the cap, we are limited in what we can do.”
The proposal makes a certain sense from the Democrats’ point of view—busting the spending cap probably means more money will go to state needs like education, even if Patrick wins his tax cuts. And it makes a certain sense for somebody like Eltife, who won’t have to stand in the way of tax cuts while other fiscal needs get attention, too.
But from Patrick’s POV, it’s a weirdly craven move. For one, he’s proposing to bust the spending cap—a sacred cow among conservatives—while saying loudly that he’s proposing to preserve it. And it contains a certain measure of political cowardice; if legislators wanted to, they could vote to bust the spending cap this session with a simple majority vote. Instead, they’re asking voters to make the hard choice for them, a move that seems eerily reminiscent of the dreaded Sacramento style of governance.
Furthermore, the amendment, if it passed, would privilege tax cuts over other kinds of spending. If the Lege ends up with $6 billion in additional revenue over the spending cap next session, it would virtually assure that that money would produce more tax cuts rather than, say, go back to schools or health care or roads.
Finally, it’s a move that’s emblematic of Patrick’s emerging leadership style—impulsive, seemingly thought-up on the fly and done with little consultation with his legislative partners. House Speaker Joe Straus gave an exceptionally cool statement in response: “For 36 years our state spending cap has helped enforce fiscal discipline, and we should be very cautious about any attempt to weaken it.”
But Patrick’s proposal points to a reality about the new era in the Lege: Patrick and the generally suburban-oriented senators who represent the new vanguard are not amenable to government spending and value tax cuts above almost all else.
Indeed, the finance committee’s roleplaying session this week didn’t just focus on cutting taxes, but ending them in their current form. The Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Talmadge Heflin told the committee that its proposed property tax cuts would do “for now,” until the property tax could be abolished entirely. He would like to see it replaced by a big statewide sales tax, which would shift the state’s tax burden from the middle class to its lower class.
And senators talked a lot about dissolving the franchise tax. Almost everyone hates the franchise tax, including Democrats, but it produces some $4.7 billion in revenue every year. State Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls) and others have filed bills that would kill the franchise tax at the end of this year, leaving a $9 billion hole in the state’s budget. Other proposals, including one filed by state Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe) would kill off the franchise tax by 2020, replacing it with, perhaps, yet more sales taxes.
Another TPPF analyst wowed the committee with his franchise tax talk. His “dynamic econometric model”—“We didn’t have those when I was in school,” said state Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville)—showed that money would rain from the sky on Texas businesses if the Lege would just kill it off once and for all. And on Tuesday, senators got to boost their fiscal conservative credentials by talking up bills to kill minor taxes the comptroller’s office no longer wants, including one on sulphur producers. Another would repeal a 2 percent tax on fireworks collected for the benefit of rural fire departments.
These conversations are only possible because the state is experiencing relatively good times. But no economic boom lasts forever. When the “Texas Miracle” slows—an idea that seems inconceivable to many of the people running the state—we’re going to wonder where all of that past revenue went.
State government has underinvested in its basic responsibilities for years. Texas’ public education system is a national joke—the judge who found the school finance system unconstitutional recently warned an audience that the state is actively “dooming a generation of these children” through systematic, intentional and needless skinflintery. The roads are in bad shape, and haven’t kept pace with extraordinary population growth. Pension and health care funds for state employees are weak. Even the buildings that house state agencies are crumbling.
But come next year, Texans may have a little bit more cash in their pockets, which they can spend, perhaps, on cheaper fireworks. Let the good times roll!
Jason Villalba photo courtesy Jason Villalba, Donna Campbell photo by Patrick Michels
State Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) and state Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels)
The Texas Association of Business has come out against two religious freedom resolutions that critics say would enshrine a “license to discriminate” against LGBT people in the Texas Constitution.
TAB, which is the state’s powerful chamber of commerce, unanimously adopted a resolution last month opposing House Joint Resolution 55 and Senate Joint Resolution 10, by Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) and Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels), respectively.
Chris Wallace, president of TAB, said more than 100 members of the board voted to add opposition to the resolutions to the group’s legislative agenda at a statewide meeting Feb. 17.
“We feel that this will certainly make our state look very much unwelcoming when it comes to business recruitment,” Wallace said of the resolutions. “We also have several businesses within the state, our large corporations for instance, that have diversity policies already in place, and what we’re hearing from them is they want their state to look the same way.”
Wallace pointed to the example of Toyota, which is moving its U.S. headquarters to Plano and worked with the city to pass an Equal Rights Ordinance protecting LGBT people against discrimination. He also cited damage to Arizona’s business reputation when similar legislation passed last year before it was vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer.
In addition to LGBT issues, the chamber is concerned the resolutions would allow people to claim religious exemptions to criminal, tax, health and safety, environmental quality and zoning laws. Wallace said the resolutions would also lead to a spike in litigation, costing businesses and taxpayers.
In opposing the ordinances, TAB joins progressive groups, including Equality Texas, the ACLU and the Texas Freedom Network.
“We are a very conservative business association as the state chamber, and it’s not our typical partners we have at the table with us,” Wallace said. “But we’re proud we have these partners at the table with us because we’re all working together to make sure we keep Texas open for business, and that we are seen as a place that welcomes all people and not one that excludes any groups of people.”
In response to the TAB decision, Campbell issued a statement suggesting SJR 10 is business-friendly.
“SJR 10 is about stopping overreaching governments at the local level from forcing Texans to run their businesses in opposition to their values and principles,” Campbell said. “If not for the protection of religious freedom, our nation would not be as diverse and tolerant as it is today for families, employers, and employees of all faiths. A lot of small business owners are going to be awfully disappointed if business groups start selling individual liberty and traditional family values down the river for an unattainable level of political correctness.”
A spokesman for Villalba said the representative was booked for the remainder of the week and wouldn’t be available to discuss the issue.
In addition to opposing the resolutions, Wallace said TAB has joined the newly formed statewide organization Texas Competes, which is dedicated to making the business case for fair treatment of LGBT people.
Debbie Townley of Austin is one of nearly 1 million Texans who could lose the financial assistance she gets to help pay for health insurance if the Supreme Court rules against the Obama administration.
Debbie Townley, a 54-year-old grandmother of two living in Austin, didn’t get annual mammograms or well-woman exams for years because she couldn’t afford health insurance.
“I would go to the emergency room to get health care to take care of an ailment,” she said. “It got to the point where I would be sick and still be going to work because I couldn’t go to the doctor.”
But in February, she found a solution. Townsend signed up for a plan through the Affordable Care Act’s insurance marketplace. After a $194 subsidy, Townley only pays $158 out of her pocket each month. She can now afford regular checkups and cheaper prescriptions.
Townley’s subsidy and that of nearly 1 million Texans who purchased health insurance and also qualify for financial help through the federal marketplace are in jeopardy. Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a challenge to a portion of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. At issue is whether people who live in states that did not set up their own state-administered insurance marketplaces, including Texas, are eligible to receive federal tax credits. Should the high court rule against the Obama administration, Townley and other Texans who qualify for a federal subsidy could lose the money they get to help pay for health insurance.
“Without the tax credit, it’d be really hard to pay my bills,” she said. “To do away with the tax credit would be another burden on my finances.”
As oral arguments wrapped up Wednesday in Washington, D.C., state Rep. Chris Turner (D-Arlington) filed two bills that he says will protect Texans who receive federal subsidies. House Bill 817 would create a Texas-run exchange if the Supreme Court decides consumers in Texas aren’t eligible for tax credits through the federal marketplace. House Bill 818 would create a state exchange regardless of the outcome.
For the last several sessions, Texas lawmakers have decided against establishing a state-administered exchange.
“Texas needs to be prepared,” Turner said. “I understand that many of my colleagues in the Capitol do not support the [Affordable Care Act], but what I do hope, however, is that people will see through political rhetoric and agree that making sure our constituents don’t get hit with a major tax increase is the right thing to do, as well as ensure that Texans who have purchased health plans in the marketplace have the ability to keep them and get the health care that they and their families need.”
During the last open enrollment period, which ran from October to mid-February, almost 1.2 million Texans enrolled in health plans through the federal marketplace. Of those, 84 percent qualified for a subsidy that lowered their monthly payments.
To receive a federal tax credit, an individual must earn between $11,500 and $46,680, or between $25,850 and $95,400 for a family of four. The Kaiser Family Foundation, a national health care research organization, estimates that more than 2 million Texans are eligible to receive financial assistance, though not all of them are currently enrolled. According to the National Women’s Law Center, nearly 1.3 million of those eligible are women and approximately 761,000 are Hispanic.
Texans at risk of losing their insurance aren’t the only ones worried. Ted Shaw, CEO of the Texas Hospital Association, said Texas hospitals incur billions of uncompensated care costs by treating the uninsured in emergency rooms.
“An end to tax subsidies and private health insurance coverage for nearly 1 million Texans will further weaken the already strained health care safety net and increase the un-reimbursed care costs shifted on to employers and property taxpayers,” he said.
Early analysis of oral arguments by legal experts indicate the justices could be split 5-4, though it’s unclear what the outcome will be. Though Texas isn’t challenging the Affordable Care Act in this case, Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement that the lawsuit “will ultimately free Texans from the bureaucratic burdens of this unjust, unaffordable and failing law.”
State Rep. Celia Israel (right) and her partner Celinda Garza
The name of a lesbian lawmaker’s longtime partner doesn’t appear in a Texas legislative directory, though the publisher updated the web version after the Observer inquired about the issue.
Austin Democratic Rep. Celia Israel’s partner of 20 years, Celinda Garza, isn’t listed in the 2015 edition of the Texas State Directory—a go-to source for lobbyists, reporters and others seeking information about legislators.
The Texas State Directory—an 80-year-old publication put out by a small private company—places the names of lawmakers’ spouses in parentheses next to their cities of residence.
Israel said her staff listed Garza as her partner on a form provided to the Texas State Directory. However, Julie Sayers, the president and publisher of the Texas State Directory, indicated that because Garza wasn’t listed as Israel’s spouse, she wasn’t included. She also said only legally married spouses are listed in the directory.
“I’ve lived with this my whole life. It’s just something you get used to,” Israel said. “It’s unfortunate that they’re not recognizing my 20-year relationship.”
Israel, elected last year, is the first out lesbian lawmaker in Texas—and the only openly LGBT state legislator in Texas history to have a longtime same-sex partner.
Despite an anti-LGBT legislative climate at the Capitol this session, Israel said she and Garza have gotten a generally positive reception. Garza wasn’t allowed to join the Legislative Ladies Club because they aren’t married. However, they were introduced as partners at a gala on the eve of the session hosted by Speaker Joe Straus and his wife.
“It’s always nice when people recognize us,” Israel said. “We’re a unit.”
Sayers initially told the Observer that Garza’s name wasn’t listed anywhere on the form provided by Israel’s office. Sayers said she had a copy of the form but declined to provide it to the Observer. A representative from Israel’s office said they didn’t retain a copy of the form.
Sayers acknowledged that only spouses can be included in the directory.
“That’s not my business to list girlfriends or boyfriends or children,” Sayers said.
Israel said she planned to write a letter to Sayers about the matter.
Sayers said it would be too late to update the print version of the directory because it has already gone to press. But as of Wednesday, the online version of Israel’s listing had been updated to read: “Spouse: Celinda Garza (Partner).”
Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick at the State of the State Address.
Ah, love triangles. Throughout history, they’ve provided rich dramatic material. But they’re no fun to be in, and almost as un-fun to be around. Bruised egos, miscommunication and ill will. Matters of the heart get so messy.
The Legislature is also premised on a three-way relationship, though, one hopes, platonic. There’s Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus. We know where they stand, roughly—Patrick’s a right-winger who goes with his gut, and Straus is a cautious and analytical moderate. Which of them will form a stronger relationship with the governor?
The answer to that question will say a lot about how the 84th Legislature unfolds. Who’s winning?
1) Dan Patrick has so much love to give, man.
There are many different ways to form a bond with a political partner, but Patrick’s is pretty curious. A few weeks ago, I wrote that the lite guv’s strategy for dealing with the governor appeared to be to “hug him to death and hope compliance follows,” but if anything I may have undersold it. Dan’s mash notes for Greg are getting stronger:
—At a Feb. 10 press conference on extending the National Guard border deployment, Patrick emphasized multiple times that he stood “shoulder to shoulder” with the governor. They were in close physical proximity to each other. So good so far, I guess. He was tamer in his words for Straus: “We stand shoulder to shoulder with the governor, and we will work with the speaker.”
—After the State of the State address on Feb. 17, Patrick reported that the two had achieved some sort of mind-meld. “I could have written that speech,” he told a reporter. In a statement, he said that Abbott said “everything I wanted to hear in the State of the State address.”
—Another week goes by, and the two have become even closer, perhaps dangerously so. On Feb. 24, Patrick holds a press conference to discuss his tax cut proposals. Is Abbott on board? “We’re so close shoulder-to-shoulder you couldn’t put a piece of paper between us.”
That’s abnormally close. Patrick and Abbott, apparently, have entered into a collapsing orbit like two doomed celestial bodies. At any moment—perhaps this has happened already—their masses will merge and become one. Has anyone seen Greg Abbott lately?
2) The one with the fear of commitment
The problem for Patrick is that the governor has shown no signs of reciprocating this love. There are even a few signs that he doesn’t particularly enjoy this level of affection.
When Patrick had that press conference on border security—the one where he emphasized over and over that the governor stood “shoulder to shoulder” with him—the press waited most of the day for a corroborating statement from Abbott’s office. But it didn’t come. This was strange. It fell to Straus to reply to Patrick’s event, which was attended by every member of the GOP Senate caucus. And Straus’ response was very, very cool.
The State of the State—the one Patrick says he could have written himself—contained only cursory plugs for Patrick’s policy agenda. He mentioned school choice, sure, but not in the way Patrick would have done. His plan for border security carefully marks the halfway point in between the House’s proposal and the Senate’s. And several of his emergency items come with a price tag, like his university research initiative, which could prove unpopular in the spending-averse Senate, especially since the senators have their own budget priorities.
Meanwhile Abbott and the Senate seem to be competing with each other to offer the biggest tax cut proposals: The original Senate budget included $4 billion in tax cuts; then, Abbott proposed $4.4 billion; and Patrick answered with $4.6 billion. If the tax cut proposals continue to grow at this rate, state government will have abolished itself by May.
Does Patrick’s Senate respect Abbott? We saw one test of that last week, when the Senate Committee on Nominations met to consider Abbott’s three appointments to the University of Texas System Board of Regents. Conservative activists like those associated with Midland oilman Tim Dunn hate Abbott’s nominees.
The hearing was the first public split between Abbott and legislators—Republican senators attempted to tear his nominees to pieces in a five-hour hearing so intense it fell to a Democrat, state Sen. José Rodríguez, to offer Abbott a few sympathetic words.
It may have been the first visible rift between Abbott and his right,but it won’t be the last. There are many issues on which the moderate, responsible governor that Abbott might like to be is at odds with the wingers in his party, Dan Patrick foremost among them.
Patrick’s predecessor David Dewhurst was weak, but desperate to look strong. He had less and less influence as his tenure in office went along, but he was always sure to make himself visible. Patrick, so far, is doing something approaching the opposite—in his series of policy press conferences, he’s been letting the chairs of the Senate committees take point on their issues, even when the bills they’re offering up are effectively his.
There’s been a lot of talk around Austin that Patrick might make a run for governor in 2018, either because Abbott doesn’t run for re-election or Patrick chooses to primary him. If that’s the game plan, it makes sense for Patrick to offer Abbott his loving support now. There’s no point in showing his ambition this far out—it’s a bad look. But if the divide keeps growing between the Senate right-wing, encouraged by enforcer groups that have always had pretty tame feelings for the guv, and Abbott—who could blame Patrick for that?
3) The strong, silent type
Straus isn’t just ideologically different from Patrick, he’s cognitively and emotionally different: He’s cool and analytical where Patrick is hot and passionate.
In this year’s speaker race, which Straus won easily, there was some speculation that Patrick’s arrival made House Republicans less willing to support a conservative challenger to Straus. Patrick was an unknown quantity, and a lot of Republicans in the Lege were skeptical. They wanted a speaker who would stand up for them and ignore the ideologues if Patrick’s Senate threatened rural schools, for example.
Is it possible Patrick’s leadership style will encourage Straus to be more vocal about his beliefs, too? When pressed on this question at a UT-Austin event recently, Straus was mostly mum. But his statement on Patrick’s border proposal was remarkably terse: “I appreciate Governor Patrick’s remarks, but Governor Abbott is the Commander in Chief and he will decide whether to extend the National Guard’s deployment.” That’s about as close as you get to seeing one politician tell an ostensible ally to go screw himself in an official statement.
On Monday, a key ally of House leadership, Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton), appeared alongside what appeared to be three to four dozen reps—including some Democrats—to talk up the House’s border plan. Bonnen laid out a collection of bills that would seek to bolster law enforcement abilities throughout the state while creating a permanent DPS presence along the border. That would allow the National Guard to be sent home quickly and preempt the need for future border “surges,” like the one Patrick wants to maintain.
Those “surges” have always been more about political need rather than practical need, so it’s hard to see how some more state troopers would prevent them. Still, the effort to rally so many representatives to stand alongside Bonnen was a strong visual match to Patrick’s press conference, when he attempted to use the whole Senate GOP caucus as leverage against both the governor and House.
And Patrick is not going out of his way to make himself beloved in Straustown. At a speech Patrick gave to a gathering of the Concerned Women for America, a Christian group, he gave a version of a spiel he’s given at at least two events recently. The gist: Finally, most of the state’s leadership are good Christians.
“I have never seen before in my eight years in the Texas Senate the presence of God in the Capitol like I’ve seen this year,” said Patrick. “Greg Abbott, myself, Comptroller Hegar, Ken Paxton, Sid Miller. I’ve participated in all their swearings-in and inauguration. And I can tell you that every one of them put God first.” They honored Jesus in all they did.
Omitted from Patrick’s list, of course, is Straus, who is Jewish. Those who follow Texas politics know the utility of these kinds of dog-whistles in talking to groups like CWA, though it might seem thin to others—the plausible deniability is precisely why they’re useful.
We’re only a month and a half through the session—this is supposed to be the easy part. And there’s already so much warm feeling! Only 90 days to go.
A Fort Bend County Republican has introduced a bill that would bar cities from adopting or enforcing non-discrimination ordinances that include protected classes not contained in state law. Texas law doesn’t include sexual orientation or gender identity and expression.
As a result, state Rep. Rick Miller’s House Bill 1556 would undo LGBT protections passed by numerous cities, including Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, El Paso, Fort Worth, Houston and Plano. Altogether more than 7.5 million Texas are covered by such ordinances.
“HB 1556 will prevent local governments from expanding business regulations beyond limitations established in state law,” Miller told the Observer. “Competing and inconsistent local ordinances interfere with economic liberty and discourage business expansion. By promoting instead of restricting business growth, this bill is about job creation and an improved state economy, both of which have a direct, positive impact on Texas citizens.
“Because every private business is different, nothing in the bill prevents local businesses from voluntarily adopting their own discrimination policy not currently included in state law,” he added.
Rep. Miller’s son, Beau Miller, an openly gay 41-year-old Houston attorney, is an HIV and LGBT activist. Miller said he was “extremely disappointed” to learn about his father’s bill.
“If the bill progresses through the Legislature, I’m sure there will be a robust conversation about the impact not only on minority communities, such as the LGBT community, but also on local rule in Texas,” Beau Miller said. He also posted a response to the bill on Facebook.
HB 1556 is more specific than a similar measure introduced by Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas). Huffines’ SB 343 would bar cities from enforcing any ordinances that are more stringent than state law, unless otherwise authorized by statute.
Here’s how Miller’s bill reads:
Four Collin County lawmakers previously said they planned to introduce a bill similar to Miller’s in response to the passage of the Equal Rights Ordinance in Plano.
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller bites into a cupcake during a January press conference in Austin.
In his first big act as Texas agriculture commissioner, with reporters gathered ’round to record the moment, former state Rep. Sid Miller pardoned, and then ate, a pink-frosted cupcake.
Miller’s lighthearted “cupcake amnesty” press conference, a folksy affair with beloved Austin food trailer Hey Cupcake! as a backdrop, was a big hit on the evening news. The story spread fast that, thanks to the intervention of Miller’s nanny-state-bustin’ agriculture department, Texas parents were free at last to send their kids to school with birthday cake for the class. Miller also promised to repeal state bans on deep fryers in cafeteria kitchens and on soda sales at public schools.
“We’ve been raising big, strapping, healthy young kids here in Texas for 200 years,” Miller said, “and we don’t need Washington, D.C., telling us how to do it.”
The whole spectacle was typical Miller. Before losing his state House seat in the 2012 GOP primary, the Stephenville rancher and tree farmer was best known as the author of red-meat fare like Texas’ pre-abortion sonogram law and a bill sanctioning the sporting practice known as “pork-chopping” (shooting feral hogs from a helicopter). Rather than dwell too much on agriculture in his latest campaign, Miller reminded voters of his work defunding the “abortion industry,” named Ted Nugent his campaign treasurer, and even managed to call the Civil War “the War of Northern Aggression.”
The cupcake decree was a fitting reminder that Miller—white hat, gleaming grin and all—has returned to taunt Texas liberals again. But as reporters quickly realized, there was little of substance in his announcement. Texas had not, in fact, ever banned cupcakes brought from home to school. And the rule change behind Miller’s announcement took place April 2014, months before Miller was even elected. Last year, under former commissioner Todd Staples, the department repealed the 10-year-old Texas Public School Nutrition Policy because new federal rules for school lunch and food sold at fundraisers had made the state’s policies redundant.
“In other words,” as Houston child nutrition advocate Bettina Elias Siegel wrote in January, “the ‘repeal’ characterized by Mr. Miller as somehow courageously bucking restrictive regulations was actually a show of appropriate deference by our state to the federal government.”
On her blog, “The Lunch Tray,” Siegel struggled to make sense of Miller’s announcement—not only his taking credit for a change he had nothing to do with, but worse, his plans to further peel back nutrition safeguards in the name of local control. “To encourage deep-fat frying and soda and cupcakes is so shockingly backward thinking,” Siegel tells the Observer.
What’s most troubling about Miller’s announcement, Siegel says, is that his department is the one tasked with enforcing those federal regulations he deems so unnecessary. On Miller’s watch, the ag department “could essentially gut [the federal rules] through failure to enforce. And that’s really worrisome to me.”
Spokesman Bryan Black told the Observer that won’t happen; the department, he says, is still “required to comply with all federal regulations.”
But Miller sounds committed to getting around as much of that regulation as possible. Even though 16 percent of Texas’ “big, strapping” high schoolers are obese—a rate that’s higher than the national average, and even worse for low-income, Hispanic and African-American children—Miller takes Texas’ persistent childhood obesity as a sign of government ineptitude.
“These rules were put in 10 years ago, and those figures haven’t gotten any better,” he explained to Tucker Carlson of Fox and Friends. “Government intervention hasn’t worked. But individual responsibility, local control, is what works.”