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Floor Pass

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State Rep. Molly White (R-Belton)

Freshman Rep. Molly White (R-Belton) is a fireball, and we knew that. Fiercely pro-life—she blames her two abortions for a history of substance abuse and mental anguish—she might be the only member of the Legislature to haul around plastic models of fetuses in her SUV. But she’s also a woman of the world, and abortion is not her only issue. Today, as part of an interfaith lobbying effort, a group of Texas Muslims descended on the Capitol to meet legislators. White left her staff specific instructions as to how to deal with the suspicious interlocutors, and was proud enough to post them on Facebook:

Today is Texas Muslim Capital day [sic] in Austin. The House is in recess until Monday. Most Members including myself are back in District. I did leave an Israeli flag on the reception desk in my office with instructions to staff to ask representatives from the Muslim community to renounce Islamic terrorist groups and publicly announce allegiance to America and our laws. We will see how long they stay in my office.

White sees the Muslims in her office as an enemy. One might make the assumption that Muslims looking to meet their elected representatives are a different subset than jihadis, but this is not within White’s power. Apart from the odd use of the Israeli flag—as if it were a wooden stake, to menace vampires—White’s desire to see every Muslim who has the singular misfortune to wander into her office pledge “allegiance to America” before they commune with an elected officeholder is insulting and dangerous for reasons that should be obvious. Only an idiot would demand White repudiate the butchers of abortion doctors every time she rose to speak about her core issue on the House floor.

By mid-morning, Molly White was trending on Twitter, and she’s going to catch some flak for this. But White’s words are a reminder that anti-Muslim bigotry is a core part of the worldview of the state’s far-right, which fears little more than Islam. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick boycotted the first prayer delivered by an Imam in the Texas Senate back in 2007. Last year, a hijab-clad reporter from UT-Arlington’s student newspaper wrote about her unpleasant experiences at the Republican Party of Texas’ convention. Cathie Adams, a former chairwoman of the state GOP, has been traveling the state educating tea party groups to the fact that important figures in the national Republican hierarchy and the intelligence community are secret Muslims.

Now, the Texas House has a leader not afraid to speak her mind—and that’s a frightening thought.

Sen. Jane Nelson and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick
Kelsey Jukam
Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick released the first draft of the Senate's budget plan Tuesday morning.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson released the first draft of the Senate’s budget plan Tuesday morning, outlining a proposal which places a heavy emphasis on tax cuts and transportation funding. Nelson’s budget, she told reporters in her characteristically upbeat manner, was “compassionate” yet fiscally restrained, a document that would “create a Texas miracle tomorrow that will surpass the Texas miracle of today.”

In pursuit of that “miracle” the Senate has drawn up a $205.1 billion budget for 2016-2017, up 1.5 percent from the previous biennium’s $202 billion budget. The House’s budget proposal, released the first week of the session, was just $202.4 billion.

The Senate’s proposed budget is higher than the House budget in part because it includes $4 billion in tax cuts—$3 billion of property tax cuts and $1 billion of cuts to the franchise tax, Texas’ business tax. “We have an obligation to return a large share of dollars to the people that worked hard and gave us that money in the first place,” Nelson said.

Patrick and Nelson talked about the need to restrict property tax growth—the tax is levied by localities, not the state—but the Senate budget attempts to compensate by giving more state aid to school districts.

After talking up the budget’s approach to taxes, transportation and border security, Nelson rounded to the topic of public education, which she said “is a priority for us.” The Senate budget actually adds about $2.5 billion to public education, but that’s only to compensate for an expected enrollment increase of 83,000 students—in other words, there’s no attempt to return to the level of school funding that existed before 2011’s enormous cuts.

Eva DeLuna Castro, a policy analyst at the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities, says that proposed education funding is still “way lower” than what is needed to carry out standardized testing and curriculum requirements.

The Texas Department of Transportation fares better. Through a number of funding sources, including 2014’s Proposition 1, which diverts money from the Rainy Day Fund to the State Highway Fund, Nelson said an additional $5 billion over the biennium would be made available to TxDOT, allowing the agency to jump-start new construction projects. That might be too optimistic. According to Castro, TxDOT has said that it needs $8 to $10 billion over the biennium just to maintain the present level of congestion and keep up with current projects.

As part of that increase in funds for TxDOT, Nelson’s budget eliminates diversions from the gas tax, which has been used, in recent years, for the budget of the Department of Public Safety. Money for DPS will now have to come from general revenue. There’s also a one-time $1.2 billion infusion for TxDOT from motor vehicle sales taxes, which normally feed into the rest of the state’s budget.

The budget proposal also allocates $2.6 billion for mental health programs. This is the same as last year’s budget, although Nelson noted that certain programs that fall under the mental health umbrella would see an increase in funding. Texas is spends less money on mental health services than nearly every other state in the country.

The budget also allocates $815 million for border security—a significant increase from previous years, and more than double what was in the House’s proposal. It adds $60 million for graduate medical education and $50 million for women’s health.

Nelson’s committee will begin its deliberations on the base budget tomorrow morning, before the House has even formed its committees. The early start on appropriations is one way Patrick’s Senate is hoping to get a jump on the less-conservative House.

At the press conference today, Patrick said he was front-loading the Senate calendar to avoid chaos as the Lege winds down months from now. But it also serves to put his priorities first in line.

The House budget proposal, released two weeks ago, more or less punted on the tougher budgetary questions, keeping spending roughly flat in most areas. The tax cuts Nelson and Patrick are proposing will be driving much of the Legislature’s conversation about the budget going forward.

At the start of the press conference, Patrick teased a tardy reporter who said he’d been over by the House chamber. “Why?” Patrick asked. “This is where the action’s gonna be this session.”

If you want to follow along at home, Nelson’s budget bill is Senate Bill 2. Later, Nelson will file Senate Bill 1, legislation that will deal with the specifics of cutting property taxes, Patrick said.

State Sen. Kevin Eltife answers questions from State Sen. Rodney Ellis, while Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick listens intently.
Christopher Hooks
State Sen. Kevin Eltife answers questions from State Sen. Rodney Ellis, while Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick listens intently.

When death came for the two-thirds rule, the 68-year-old dictate of the Texas Senate that requires 21 of the chamber’s 31 senators to agree to vote on a bill, it wasn’t exactly swift, but it was a gentler demise than some might have expected. For years, then-Sen. Dan Patrick had fulminated against the rule, which he saw as an unnecessary restraint on the power of Senate Republicans.

In 2007, on Patrick’s first day on the floor, he proposed changing to the rule to a simple majority—and he was voted down 30 to 1. But as the years have passed, Patrick’s critique of the rule has gained traction, and a number of the chamber’s new GOP senators were elected having pledged to junk it. Patrick’s election made it a virtual certainty that the rule would be killed.

But when senators voted on the rules they’ll use for the 84th legislative session today, as part of a package authored by state Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler), it wasn’t Patrick’s simple majority that made it through—his original idea, and one he’d mentioned from time to time during his primary campaign—but a slightly reduced supermajority barrier. Instead of two-thirds, the Senate will now require three-fifths of the Senate, or 19 senators, to bring a bill to a vote.

There are 20 Republicans in the Senate, so the small change means quite a bit. Eltife’s floor speech in defense of the measure made a few simple points: Keeping a supermajority requirement would address some of the arguments made by backers of the two-thirds rule, namely that its disappearance would precipitate a split between urban and rural senators, who could find themselves competing for tight resources.

Winning 19 votes is a difficult thing, Eltife said, and wouldn’t be so different in practice from getting 21. He hoped that the change would bring more decorum to the Senate, not less. It wasn’t about partisanship, he said, but about good government.

The Democrats in the chamber, who will have less leverage than ever as a result of the rule change, had a hard time swallowing that. For nearly two hours, they took turns interrogating Eltife and attempting to poke holes in his reasoning. Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) argued that the rule changes as a whole would make it easier for Senate leadership to sneak through bills and rule changes later in the session. Many others argued from principle, saying that scrapping the two-thirds tradition would make the Senate a less bipartisan place, which was certainly the point.

Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) quoted from former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby’s memoirs, in which he called a 1979 attempt to circumvent the two-thirds rule the “biggest mistake I made as president of the Texas Senate.” Hobby added that “anything that doesn’t have the support of two-thirds of the Senate is seldom a good idea.” Ellis said he hoped those in the chamber today would have enough foresight to agree with Hobby by the time they wrote their books. “I think it’s a sad day for the Senate,” Ellis said, “and one we will look back on with regret.”

Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) was more pointed. The three-fifths standard, he reminded the room, was the same one used by the U.S. Senate, the world’s least effective deliberative body. “Members, I hate to say it,” he said, “but I think we’re going the way of Congress.”

“I have been an advocate of the two-thirds rule since the beginning of the tenure in my Senate,” Eltife said, but it was no longer tenable. He liked the idea of the supermajority requirement, he said, even though some Republican senators wanted to go to 50 percent, and he had worked to preserve it.

The two-thirds rule was broken anyways, he said. The most partisan bills the Legislature has passed in recent years found a way around the requirement. When bills are brought up during a special session, as 2013’s abortion restrictions were, only a simple majority is needed to get them through the sausage factory. And legislators have plenty of ways to ignore or avoid the two-thirds rule when they really want to during session—that’s the way they passed voter ID.

Senate freshmen like Don Huffines (front) and Bob Hall (back) stayed silent as the chamber's elders debated the rules change.
Christopher Hooks
Senate freshmen like Don Huffines (front) and Bob Hall (back) stayed silent as the chamber’s elders debated the rules change.

He has a point. Many Democrats stormed social media today with the hashtag #lockout—the rule change, many said, was patently unfair and would make Texas government dramatically less transparent. But this isn’t a tipping point—it’s more like the Legislature has taken a few more steps down the grand staircase of partisanship that it’s been descending for years. Democrats had very little leverage last session, and they have less now.

At any rate, you could see the two-thirds rule as a sort of artifact of one-party Texas—when the Senate was filled with Democrats, as it was in 1947 when the rule was introduced, the rule helped ensure that broad coalitions were being built and maintained within the party. Its late role as a safeguard for the minority party seems fairly accidental. When then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid saw the need to change the rules of the U.S. Senate to overcome gridlock over nominations, he did so, and Democrats cheered. Politics is about power, and sometimes talk about “principle” can obscure that.

It was Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) who might have put it best, with what we should call Whitmire’s Dialectic: “It’s probably not as bad as I’m making it out to be,” he said during his remarks, “but it’s probably not as good as you’re making it out to be.”

The two-thirds rule was junked by a vote of 20 to 10: One Republican, Craig Estes of Wichita Falls, abstained from voting, and one Democrat, the ever-independent Eddie Lucio of Brownsville, voted for it.

In a separate vote, senators cut the number of the chamber’s committees from 18 to 14. Getting the axe are Jurisprudence, Economic Development, Government Organization and Open Government committees. Three were chaired by Democrats last session, and one by Republican Bob Deuell, who was beaten in his primary.

It’s possible that years from now, we might look back, as Ellis suggested more than once, and see this as an historic moment in Texas government. Ellis predicted that moving to a simple majority vote system was inevitable. It seems clear that Patrick, when he writes his memoirs, will not be able to declare what Lt. Gov. Albert Clinton Horton did, on the last day of Texas’ 1st Legislature, May 13, 1846:

I can safely place my hand upon my heart and say that I have never taken advantage of my station, nor endeavored to pervert the Rules of the Senate, for the purpose of carrying into effect favorite views or projects.

Still, Patrick seemed at peace with himself. As he gaveled the Senate to a close on the first day he’d spent in control of it, he offered the chamber a brief benediction: “Go with god,” he said. “Go safely.”

2015 Inauguration Day Capitol
Kelsey Jukam

 

Inaugurations are an odd part of American civic life, and they vary wildly from state to state. In Oregon this year, the re-election campaign of Gov. John Kitzhaber was nice enough to distribute cookies to the public after his inaugural address. In Washington State, a “non-partisan, nonprofit committee of citizen volunteers” planned a few events, which could be attended by members of the public for a flat fee.

But this is Texas, where we do politics as God intended, and so the inaugural ceremony that ended the decade-and-a-half reign of James Richard Perry and began the bright new era of Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick was a $4.5 million corporate- and donor-powered blowout, complete with a flyover of F-16 fighter jets, cannon fire, and enough barbecue to feed a small army, and their horses and those horses’ horses.

It was a reminder that Texas disdains nothing more than modesty. It was also, of course, a chance to take the pulse of Abbott and Patrick as they take hold of power. Abbott spoke genially and tamely about the greatness and goodness of Texas, his family, and God, in no particular order; Patrick proved he can still stoke fires and poke eyes.

Patrick’s swearing-in came first, administered by his son, a Houston judge. It’s remarkable how little has changed since Patrick’s address to the state Republican Party convention this summer, the first time he declined a chance to swerve to the middle. He opened his speech by invoking Proverbs 21:31 to explain his election victory—“The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory rests with the Lord.” Patrick, one presumes, is the horse.

“I worked hard,” Patrick told the crowd, “but the victory was His.” He was now, as he had been during his primary run, “a Christian first, a conservative second, and a Republican third.” He would strive to be “trustworthy, encouraging to others, and humble.”

Dan and Jan Patrick pose for admirers.
Kelsey Jukam
Dan and Jan Patrick pose for admirers.

With humility close to mind, he would strive to be the “best lieutenant governor in the history of Texas.” He urged the crowd again and again to repeat with him his speech’s refrain: “It’s a new day in Texas.” The last decade of all-Republican government had been fine, as those things go, but Patrick would take it to 11. “As conservatives we have done many great things over the last 12 years since taking the majority,” he said to applause, “but it’s time to take it to the next level.”

Remaining humble, Patrick invoked Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most famous speech. “I don’t think he could have dreamed that 52 years later that many of our inner city schools would still be failing our children,” he said. Dan, too, had a dream. “Some in Austin tell me school choice will never pass, but Dr. King is not the only one who can dream.” Patrick’s voucher and charter agenda would give every left-behind child a way to “break the bounds of poverty.”

Patrick laid out, with a strong measure of certainty, his legislative agenda—school choice, tax cuts, transportation funding, increased use of natural gas, more and more funding for border security. He excels at painting bright lines around himself and his opponents. Will that work well for him this year, now that campaigning is done? Patrick’s grandiose pronouncements—“We’re going to secure the border in this legislative session,” he told the crowd at one point, as if it had never yet been tried—shows what he feels he must deliver to his voters. But as time goes on, the scope of what he can actually get accomplished will narrow. Can he sell it back to his supporters?

Abbott, for his part, gave a much more traditional inauguration speech, in that it was essentially about nothing. Policy did come up, inasmuch as he vaguely asserted he would do something about traffic congestion, and water shortages, and standing up to the feds, but the specifics will wait for another day.

Here is a fine measure of the rhetorical difference between the two men: Patrick, as mentioned, defines himself simply. Christian, conservative, Republican. How does Abbott? He’s proud to claim the title of governor, he says, but the name of which he’s most proud is “Dad.” Aw.

Abbott spoke of his personal struggles—his ascent from his Houston hospital bed some decades ago was thanks to God’s grace, and the boundless possibilities of Texas. His message was carefully post-partisan. “Our children transcend politics in this state,” Abbott said. Except, of course, for the precious moments where he was able to hit at D.C. “Any government that uses the guise of fairness to rob us of our freedom will get a uniquely Texan response,” he said, in one of his largest applause lines. “Come and take it!”

He closed by asking the crowd to look at the pavement and grass under their feet. That was more than just soil. It was the trophy won by the fathers of the Texas Revolution and all those who had fought to give us liberty. Under the shadow of an enormous Confederate cavalryman’s memorial, attendees nodded.

It would not be the end of the festivities—there was barbecue, and a parade replete with Hummers and oil-themed floats, and tonight’s ball, headlined by the country band Lady Antebellum, who had to change their name, one imagines, from “Lady Prewar and her Things Were Better Back Then Band.” Long live liberty.

Greg Abbott in the inaugural parade, the first since 2003.
Kelsey Jukam
Greg Abbott in the inaugural parade, the first since 2003.

There was a godly theme at the Capitol grounds today. Dr. Tony Evans, a Dallas preacher who bills himself as “the urban alternative,” urged his audience to remember that “government was created by God, for the benefit of the people it serves.” He hoped that the pink dome behind him would continue to be “His house,” belonging to the “ultimate King.” Abbott and Patrick’s speeches did their best to flesh out what this would mean in practice.

Joe Gaston will be carrying his cross around the capitol grounds for three days of prayer and fasting.
Kelsey Jukam
Joe Gaston will be carrying his cross around the Capitol grounds for three days of prayer and fasting.

This was not lost on Joe Gaston, who came to the Capitol with an enormous, wheeled cross. He told the Observer he’d be circling the Capitol for the next two days, bearing the cross and praying for the state’s leadership. He was happy, he said, that “God was not hid” in the men’s speeches: “To hear a politician get up and publicly make that kind of statement, you’ve got to be bold.”

But beneath the godly gild today was a surfeit of earthly riches. Today’s big bash cost a hell of a lot of money, a modern record. To put it in context, it’s roughly comparable to the total amount of money Leticia Van de Putte, the Democratic nominee for lite guv, raised for her race in 2014. Some came from corporate donors like Comcast and Chesapeake Energy, companies with important business before the Legislature. There’s no requirement that donations for the inauguration be made public.

Some came from individual donors. Abbott’s appointees to the inaugural committee, which planned today’s events, include plenty of traditional GOP donor types, like Javaid Anwar, a Midland oilman who recently got named to serve on Dan Patrick’s advisory committee on energy. There’s even a member of the Walton family. Patrick’s appointees include more grassroots types—but that apparently didn’t inhibit them from raising the money they needed. In that respect, the new regime is the same as the old regime.

Additional reporting by Kelsey Jukam

Rick Perry addresses a joint session of the Legislature near the end of his final term in office.
Christopher Hooks
Rick Perry addresses a joint session of the Legislature near the end of his final term in office.

A child born when Rick Perry became governor of Texas would now be in her freshman year of high school: The guv’s been with us for so long that it’s difficult to remember what life was like before his immaculately-coiffed visage appeared atop the state’s public life in that gleaming, pre-9/11 interregnum between the Clinton and W. Bush administrations. But now, he’s finally, finally, finally leaving.

Governor Goodhair, as the Observer’s Molly Ivins used to call him, said goodbye to the Texas Legislature today, where he’d gotten his start some 30 years ago. He’s been governor so long that we’ve seen several different iterations of Perry, as if he were a teenager exploring new trends—there was the handsome young fellow who was elevated to governor thanks in large part to Karl Rove and Bush-era machinations, but who nobody expected to last this long. He went through a more heavily Christian phase during the Bush years, and then joined the Tenthers. After his run for president, he bought glasses, and fashioned himself into the kind of man who wears glasses confidently.

This was an opportunity to wrap it all up into a cohesive whole—as well as all that had happened in the last decade and a half—and he made the attempt. The soaring eagle of Texas had flown through the canyon of adversity and found itself in the gentle forests of triumph. He quoted Lincoln, and recounted his biography and Texas’ job numbers.

“Texas doesn’t recognize artificial barriers of race, class, or creed. The most vivid dreams take flight from the most humble beginnings. And so it was for me,” he said. From Paint Creek, a mighty tree had grown, a tree named Perry. The Legislature, he said, was in the “business of making dreams possible. Every dream counts, every child matters, and in Texas, every child has a chance.”

His Texas had been tested, by the disintegration of a space shuttle—he meant Columbia, but called it Challenger—hurricanes, wildfires, Ebola and Central American teenagers. But Texans were a “people whose character has been refined by fire, whose souls are resilient, who respond to tragedy with grace and who look to the future with hope.”

There were a few digs at Barry O—“We do not accept the false choice the president offers between protecting the environment and declaring war on American industry”—a few brags on Texas’ cultural growth since 2000—more theater seats, performing arts centers, South by Southwest and Formula One.

He touted efforts that took place during his tenure on criminal sentencing reform, and he urged the next Legislature to “get beyond our differences and seek common ground,” which is the kind of thing a politician is expected to say when he’s about to leave office, even if he’s never cared about it much before. “Compromise is not a dirty word if it moves Texas forward.”

He praised Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick and Joe Straus, and said he knows the “future is in good hands.” His final admonition: “Be true to Texas, always, and she will be true to you. Good luck, Godspeed, God bless you, and through you, may God bless Texas.” He took his wife Anita by the hand and descended the stairs, to healthy applause.

Goodbye, governor. We’ll see you in Iowa.

Senate Education Committee chair Dan Patrick (R-Houston)
Patrick Michels
Sen. Dan Patrick presides over a committee meeting.

At a press conference this morning, Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick announced a new pillar of his transition: the creation of six advisory boards, filled with businesspeople, to guide him on public policy. At first, that might sound useful. The business community as a whole has sometimes been a helpful voice in favor of transportation, water infrastructure and education spending.

But the list of names Patrick released today aren’t neutral technocrats and disinterested businesspeople—many are longtime GOP donors, and many have a strong personal interest in what the state does and doesn’t do. As a whole, the six panels—economic and workforce development, economic forecasting, energy/oil & gas, tax policy, transportation and water—represent a potential rat’s nest of conflicts of interest and influence peddling.

At the press conference, Patrick touted the boards as an unprecedented effort to close the ever-narrowing gap between the public and private sectors. He was proud, he said, to be able to reach out to a marginalized and voiceless community in Texas: big business. Often in Texas, Patrick said, “the private sector is asked for help by a candidate but after they get elected, there’s not much follow up.”

He asked: “Why would you want a legislative body to disconnect themselves from the private sector?” Pointing to the fact that the state’s legislators work part-time and need to find income elsewhere, he said of the Legislature: “We’re all in business.” Indeed!

The boards, which will meet privately, will be called upon by the lieutenant governor to give advice, but will also generate their own policy proposals. Patrick said he wouldn’t be shy about telling the public which proposals had come from the advisory panels. One major proposal already has.

Last week, Patrick released a rough draft of his agenda—among big-picture items like education reform and transportation funding, he included a curious provision. The state should strengthen and support the market for natural gas, Patrick said. Twenty percent of new vehicles purchased by state agencies should run on compressed natural gas, or CNG.

Today, Patrick said, his new love of natural gas had come from conversations with business leaders, like his new friends on the energy/oil & gas advisory board. The leader of the board is Dallas billionaire T. Boone Pickens, who for years has heavily invested in natural gas and has attempted, with limited success, to expand the market share of CNG vehicles.

His California-based company, Clean Energy Fuels Corp., has been angling to become a CNG leader. In January of 2014, the Los Angeles Times reported that Clean Energy was losing money and in need of finding new vehicle fleets it could serve.

Natural gas vehicles might well be a great idea, but that’s beside the point—the inclusion of people who stand to make money by advocating certain policies in the policy-making process in this very public way is problematic on its face. At a minimum, many citizens will perceive it as cronyism.

You see the potential for conflicts of interest up and down Patrick’s boards. Also on the energy/oil & gas panel are Tim Dunn, the Midland oilman who single-handedly finances important parts of the state’s conservative network, and who has been in a war with House Speaker Joe Straus for years, and Javaid Anwar, another Midland oilman and GOP donor who gave heavily to Rick Perry’s presidential run.

Then there’s Brint Ryan, who will lead Patrick’s new tax policy advisory board. He’s a tax consultant who specializes in helping companies like Raytheon and ExxonMobil win Texas tax breaks. He is, in other words, one of the top practitioners of what the left and tea party alike call “corporate welfare.” And, of course, he’s a major GOP donor—he gave $250,000 to Rick Perry’s presidential campaign effort alone.

Ned Holmes, who will lead Patrick’s transportation panel, is a Houston real estate developer, a major GOP donor, and a prominent supporter of Greg Abbott. He’s not exactly new to state government—someone who can bring fresh, outside ideas into play. He donated almost $200,000 to Rick Perry before Perry appointed him to the Texas Transportation Commission in 2007, where he made a special effort to support projects favored by Houston developers like himself. He’s a current board member of the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas. He has a strange and slightly cryptic business history.

There are 55 names on this morning’s list in total—the above is what resulted from a cursory scan and a few quick searches.

This morning, Patrick touted the panels as being like a “team of rivals,” the name of a Doris Kearns Goodwin book that describes how Abraham Lincoln convened political enemies to serve in his cabinet. Not all of the figures on the panels were his supporters, he said. But there’s only one notable Democrat, Alonzo Cantu from McAllen. The rest might not have supported him in his last primary, but it would seem highly likely that they’ll be donors next time.

Of course, influence peddling is not new to the Legislature, and we’ve had these kinds of advisory panels before—Patrick’s spokesman pointed to one in 1981. But this feels new, if only in scope. And it’s already affecting the policies the 84th Legislature generates.

In the past, a lieutenant governor might have tried to obscure, if only superficially, the fact that he took policy direction from some of the state’s richest oilmen. But Patrick’s approach is, in a way, a classically Texas approach: Make influence-peddling transparent, and, suddenly, it doesn’t seem so bad. Now, it’s the seamless interchange of ideas and policies between the public and private sector. Don’t you feel better already?

State Rep. Scott Turner speaks to party faithful at the 2014 state Republican convention.
Timothy Faust
State Rep. Scott Turner speaks to party faithful at the 2014 state Republican convention.

For a year, Scott Turner had been campaigning for House Speaker. He’d been campaigning in tiny tea party meeting rooms across the state and he had campaigned at the state Republican convention, where a vast trove of Turner-branded trinkets were distributed to the faithful. He was the champion of the considerable and monied machinery that had been trying to undo House Speaker Joe Straus, who’s carefully maintained a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans since he was elected to the position by his fellow representatives six years ago.

Turner had the backing of the tea party faithful, who he’d told he would help protect from a menacing and darkening world. He had the backing of the Christian right, whose leadership has never been altogether too comfortable with the fact that Straus is Jewish. He even had the backing of a number of senators, who spoke strongly in his favor at a rally yesterday. But he didn’t have the support of the only people who mattered in the end—the members of the House. And so he got trampled today, 127 to 19.

First, though, came a series of not-too-titillating speeches—four Straus allies, including Democrat Rene Oliveira (D-Brownsville), emphasized his record and policy credentials, while four Turner allies talked about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, and invoked Shakespeare and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (To be fair, the last three belonged to Fort Worth’s Matt Krause.)

It was unsurprising to anyone who’d been paying attention to the Lege, but it was still a margin Straus could feel good about. The House—while by no means a liberal body, or even that moderate—will serve as a check on the Senate’s most conservative instincts this year.

Amy Zimmerman, a Turner supporter from Grayson County who traveled down with the McKinney Tea Party, found herself wandering around the Capitol’s library after the vote in her Scott Turner t-shirt. She said the result wasn’t a surprise, but she still seemed a little emotional.

“We’re having an issue with what the people want, and what the legislators want,” she said, adding that conservatives like her, who have just emerged from their most successful election cycle in the state’s history, are “frustrated and at the breaking point.”

The representatives were scared, and they wouldn’t do what was right. Everyone knew what was right, she said. What had Straus done to frustrate people like her so much? He’d held up bills “on gun rights and Sharia law.” Straus’ “cronies” had killed them. Corruption carried the day whenever Devil Joe held the gavel.

Even tea party reps like Giovanni Capriglione (R-South Lake) had let them down. Maybe, some tea partiers have said, they need to be replaced. So tomorrow—with Tim Dunn’s money—they’d start anew. Straus’ allies were less solemn. When it came time to vote, Jason Embry, the speaker’s spokesman, tweeted: “Remember this moment.”

Texas Capitol building illustration
Pascal Hassenforder/Flickr

Vouchers and School Choice

If school choice is “the civil rights issue of our time,” then Dan Patrick is the next Frederick Douglass.

Our new lite guv is, of course, too humble to say so himself, but every time he compares school choice to, say, ending slavery or segregation, the subtext is clear. So count on hearing that old saw again and again from Patrick this year, not only because it makes such tidy work of Texas’ complex and abiding inequality, but because it lends a moral core to schemes long championed by free-marketeers who so often seem to lack one.

Patrick used the line repeatedly in his short-lived charge for school vouchers last session, when he introduced a “taxpayer savings grant” program to let companies fund private-school scholarships with money they were otherwise obliged to pay the state. The plan’s supporters insisted the comparison to vouchers was unfair.

Patrick has promised to fight for vouchers again this session, so expect to see another “taxpayer savings grant” or a school-voucher program for special-needs students that may slightly open a door the Legislature has, for decades, firmly held shut.

“We don’t know what type of voucher bills will be filed, but we hear they’re coming,” Raise Your Hand Texas CEO David Anthony told a crowd at the Capitol in December. He said proposals might include “anything that is humanly possible to pull on the heartstrings.” And indeed, days before the session began, Sen. Donna Campbell filed her “universal school choice” proposal, promising to improve poor children’s education while growing Texas’ economy.

Expect hearings and press conferences stacked with parents demanding a private-sector solution to their children’s lousy public schools. But a voucher system would direct public money to schools with no requirement to teach a state-approved curriculum or provide services for students with special needs or limited English, and with the freedom to turn students away as they see fit. A long-running voucher program in Milwaukee has shown that public school students don’t fare any better in private schools, but that may be beside the point. Gov. Bobby Jindal’s voucher plan in Louisiana built a whole new industry rife with low-cost, low-quality schools to meet the new demand.

With a more conservative Senate and Patrick in charge, vouchers stand a better chance of passing than ever. Now, as in 2013, the fight will come down to whether the House, under Speaker Joe Straus and Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen), chair of the public education committee, can still hold the door shut tight.

Border and Immigration

This session, expect plenty of heated rhetoric from an influx of new tea party legislators who won elections by bashing immigrants and hollering about border security. Dan Patrick will likely lead the pack. In a campaign TV ad, he claimed ISIS fighters had threatened to cross the border and “kill Americans.” He’s also referred to undocumented crossers as an “invasion” and warned that immigrants carry “Third World diseases.”

Despite the border bombast, there hasn’t been an early outpouring of anti-immigrant bills like there was in 2011. (Remember when Tomball Republican Rep. Debbie Riddle camped out at the door of the chief clerk’s office so she could be the first one to file her immigration bills?) Among those earliest out of the gate in December: a bill by freshman Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas) that requires the Texas comptroller to send a bill to the federal government for Texas’ border security expenses. No doubt, President Obama will cut that check just as soon as he gets the invoice.

But the slow start at the Lege doesn’t mean the anti-immigrant bills aren’t in the works.

“The general consensus among immigrant rights groups and advocates is that we’re going to see sanctuary city bills [allowing police to ask for immigration status] and legislation doing away with in-state tuition for undocumented students, among other things,” says Cristina Parker, a spokesperson for the nonprofit Grassroots Leadership.

Parker also worries that legislators will try to make statewide the approach taken by Farmers Branch, which attempted to bar immigrants from renting houses or paying for public utilities. The city’s ordinances were found unconstitutional. Parker says her organization and others are preparing for a fight, probably the toughest since 2011: “I think both chambers are going to be rough.”

Guns, Guns, Guns

This winter, in preparation for their brief biennial labors, at least a dozen Texas legislators surveyed our great state, and its diverse citizens’ struggles, ambitions, fears and dreams, and arrived at a unified conclusion about what Texans most urgently need: more guns.

Guns for everyone! Guns everywhere! At press time, Texas lawmakers had pre-filed 20 bills expanding or defending handgun rights. Not all those bills will pass, but if they did, the result would be downright Seussian. You could carry a gun when you turned 18; you could carry a gun where it could be seen. You could arm yourself while attending court or watching your kid give a book report. To a bar, a church, or the DMV, you could bear your arms both proudly and freely, and because Texas parents are calm and sane, you could pack heat at a high school football game.

And those are just the places that rhyme easily. Try working in “synagogue” and “correctional facility.”

The bills range in specificity. One by state Rep. Drew Springer (R-Muenster) would allow guns basically everywhere they’re now banned, like hospitals, nursing homes, sporting events and amusement parks. Others are one-offs, such as the bills by state Reps. Dan Huberty (R-Houston) and Ken King (R-Canadian) permitting guns in school board meetings and to be carried by small-town medical responders, respectively. Some seem particularly pandering, such as the bill by state Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe) proposing a tax-free weekend for firearms and hunting accessories. And state Rep. Ryan Guillen (D-Rio Grande City) wins “Most Creative” for a bill protecting the right of grade-school children to play with pretend guns, specifically allowing “brandishing a partially consumed pastry … to simulate a firearm.” That’s referencing an incident in Maryland where a second-grader was suspended after chewing his Pop-Tart into a gun shape.

But those are all side dishes and dessert. The main course for gun-hungry legislators is open carry. It’s been proposed before, but there’s a bigger push this year; four state representatives have already filed matching open-carry bills. Yet even they won’t win the big Second Amendment prize. So far, that’s going to state Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford), who proposed what’s called “constitutional carry,” eliminating the need for a license to carry a gun.

That may sound radical, but Alice Tripp, a lobbyist for the Texas State Rifle Association, suggests the most dramatic proposals are still to come. “We support all pro-gun legislation,” she says. “But there’s many, many bills that are not pre-filed. Those will be aggressively supported.”

Abortion

After the drama of the summer of 2013, the idea that the Legislature might have further to go in restricting access to abortion could strike some as absurd. House Bill 2, the legislation that emerged from the special sessions that year, tested the limits of what was allowed under the U.S. Supreme Court’s past decisions, and it will be a while before the legal status of the law is ultimately resolved.

But while that battle continues in the background, there are peripheral issues that some pro-lifers are eager to address. The most significant point of contention may be over rules governing a legal procedure known as a “judicial bypass,” in which minors whose parents won’t give consent for an abortion can seek it through a judge. One prominent legal aid group in the state, Jane’s Due Process, specializes in helping young women secure this permission.

Minors who seek a judicial bypass often come from abusive homes or are at risk of abuse if they seek an abortion. But many pro-life activists consider judicial bypass a “loophole” that negates a parent’s say in what they see as a moral issue, and they’d like to limit it. If that effort gains traction, activists wouldn’t have to look far for champions—this year’s new crop of legislators are set to make the Texas Capitol more stalwartly pro-life than ever before. State Sen. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock) compared legalized abortion to the Holocaust at great length in his swearing-in speech.

And there’s new state Rep. Molly White (R-Belton), a crusading pro-life activist who keeps rubber fetuses in her SUV and pictures of young dead mothers in her wallet, both with the aim of explaining the human cost of abortion. She blames her two abortions as a youth on her history of drug and alcohol abuse, and she’s set to be one of the most colorful freshman reps next session. At the top of her agenda is overhauling judicial bypass.

The Budget

In bad times, the state budget is brutal; in good times it is merely austere. That is the basic dynamic we’ve come to expect from an increasingly stingy Legislature. These are good times, relatively speaking. The Texas economy is growing at a steady clip; unemployment is just north of 5 percent; the oil boom continues (although a slide in oil prices has slowed things a bit); and state revenues have exceeded projections. Some budget analysts and lawmakers are eager to point to a “surplus” of as much as $10 billion for the biennium that ends on Aug. 31. (We won’t know for sure until January, when the comptroller provides an official revenue estimate and sets limits on how much the Legislature can appropriate for 2015-2016.)

Ten billion dollars sounds like a lot, but it will go quickly. Let us count the ways: The state begins every two-year fiscal cycle with an $8 billion structural deficit—a fancy way of saying unpaid bills, the result of a 2006 Rick Perry-engineered tax swap that never penciled out. Then there’s the hole from 2011’s frenzy of cuts. The Lege has only restored about $3.4 billion of the $5.4 billion it sliced from public schools in 2011. That’s not even accounting for growing enrollment and increasing costs. (Eva DeLuna Castro, the budget guru for the liberal Center for Public Policy Priorities, estimates that another $20 billion per biennium is needed to have “schools everyone can be really proud of.”) Looking at the state’s core services—largely education and health and human services—lawmakers need to provide an additional $7 billion just to maintain the status quo. The Texas Department of Transportation says it needs another $5 billion merely to keep pace with the state’s booming population. If you’re following along at home, that big “surplus” evaporates pretty quickly.

“The economy is growing in a way that is not reached by our state tax system,” said DeLuna Castro. “That’s what this all boils down to.”

Yet many Republicans campaigned on, and are clamoring for, more tax cuts. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, in particular, has promised some sort of property tax relief “for all Texans.” DeLuna Castro said for it to be meaningful, i.e., for people to really notice it, would require $10 billion. Clearly, you cannot meet the basic needs of the state—much less reverse more than a decade of disinvestment—and pass a big tax cut. Still, they may try. 

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst
Patrick Michels

For the last week, activists, lawmakers and media have demanded that DPS produce evidence that protestors tried to bring jars of urine and feces into the Senate gallery last Friday. No DPS trooper has stepped forward to say he or she personally saw jars of urine or feces, although the law enforcement agency’s head Steve McCraw has defended the allegations. McCraw has said all of the items, including glitter, bricks and tampons, were discarded and no names were taken. But today, none other than the state’s second-highest elected official, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, claimed to have seen bottles of urine and bags of feces.

Dewhurst told Toby Marie Walker of the Waco Tea Party in a web-streamed interview that he “walked over to where [DPS] was screening” and saw DPS personnel “smelling” water bottles. “They had urine in it,” he said. Dewhurst, a former CIA operative, also said he saw DPS setting aside bags of feces to throw away. (A transcript is provided below.)

DPS’ original press release, from 4:49pm last Friday, stated that officers had discovered “one jar suspected to contain urine” and “18 jars suspected to contain feces.” Dewhurst said he saw an unspecified number of “water bottles” containing urine and an unspecified number of “bags” containing feces.

Dewhurst’s office didn’t respond to questions today about when and where he saw the bottles of urine and bags of feces. The lieutenant governor is six feet, five inches and the focus of intense media attention: It seems odd that in this era of ubiquitous social media, cameras and video his presence at the crowded Capitols security checkpoints would have gone unnoticed.

“Just like everything else with this, the more that is being told to us the more questions it raises,” said Scott Daigle, a spokesman in Rep. Donna Howard’s office.

In the interview, Dewhurst also said he personally met with DPS a “dozen times” after the Wendy Davis filibuster to go over security. “We had enough firepower that we could have defended the Capitol against a brigade of a thousand al-Qaida.”

**

[Begins ~27:20]

Toby Marie Walker: “There were—

David Dewhurst: “Bottles of urine, bags of feces. Awful.”

TMW: “I know there’s people who say, ‘Oh that didn’t happen because DPS didn’t save it’.”

DD: “It did. It did. It did. I saw some of it.”

TMW:”…I’ve heard from members and other people who saw some of it.”

DD: “Absolutely and it’s the same as myself I walked over to where they were screening and they were getting bottles out and smelling them, they were getting water bottles out and smelling and they had urine in it. And there were bags they had set aside and were going to put in the trash and throw it out, of feces. Just despicable. Despicable.”‘

Sen. Dan Patrick
Patrick Michels
Sen. Dan Patrick delivers a passionate speech in favor of House Bill 2 before its passage Friday night.

Lost in the dramatic events of Friday’s final showdown over the anti-abortion bill was a remarkable speech by Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston). It started out a critique of the Democrats’ legislative dealings with the Republican majority—inside baseball, really—but then built to a full-throated declaration of God’s wishes for the second special session of the Texas Legislature and a channeling of the wishes of women and the fetuses they carry.

Now, Patrick’s not known for his subtlety. After all, he came up in the world of right-wing radio and modestly titled his bible-inspiration manual The Second Most Important Book You Will Ever Read.

Patrick recently announced a run for lieutenant governor, challenging the bumbling Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and two other very conservative Republicans of somewhat different flavors, Ag Commissioner Todd Staples and Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson. Patrick has made little secret of his disdain for Dewhurst’s mishandling of the anti-abortion bill but it was his venomous and unapologetically Christian-ist speech on Friday that really marked the beginning of the campaign and showed just how extreme Patrick can be.

The Senate doesn’t lack for members willing to wear their faith on their sleeve. Sen. Eddie Lucio, the only Democrat to vote for House Bill 2, gave a half-hour rambling seminar on his personal theology, quoting Mother Teresa and citing John Locke, to justify his belief that life begins at conception. But Patrick goes even further.

He has a history of invoking God to justify his far-right politics. He even knows God’s schedule. In February 2011, he said of a bill requiring women seeking an abortion to get a sonogram, “This is God’s time to pass the bill.”

Patrick reviewed his own book on Amazon.com, humbly writing, “Since God inspired me to write this book, He automatically gets 5 stars and the CREDIT!”

In a 1958 TV interview with Mike Wallace, theologian and minister Reinhold Niebuhr defined “a bad religion” as “one that gives an ultimate sanctity to some particular cause.” He may have had a politician like Dan Patrick in mind.

I suspect Patrick wouldn’t wear one of those “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelets so popular back in the Bush era. Not for him, the open-ended question. “Jesus Does as I Do” is more his cup.

In his Friday address, Patrick managed to speak for women seeking an abortion, unborn babies and God, practically in one breath. That proved too much for one woman in the gallery, who shouted “I can’t take it anymore”:

We talked about the choice, you ask us, well don’t we put ourselves in the place of the woman and her choice, what choice does the baby have? Who speaks for the baby? Do you think if the mother had a conversation with the baby and said, ‘you know, this just isn’t really convenient to give birth to you right now, do you mind dying?’”

Woman yells, “I can’t take it anymore.”

Patrick: “I think that baby would say –“

Dewhurst: “Could you pause for a moment, I think the lady is going to be escorted out.”

Patrick: “I don’t get mad with those folks, I pray for them.

He went on to focus on the key Republican talking point about House Bill 2—that it’s about women’s health more than anything else, but he soon pointed out that he knows how God would’ve voted on House Bill 2 on July 12, 2013.

So at the end of the day, I respect the arguments, it’s been a good day of debate, but I can’t sit here and listen to all this talk that leaves out the most important person in the process, the baby. So who do I listen to?

I don’t apologize for being pro-life and I don’t apologize for being a Christian, and I listen to the word of God on this issue. The Bible tells us we are born in the image of God, and I believe when a baby’s life is destroyed we are destroying the image of God. And there should be no one out there celebrating it. If they want to, fine. But I will never stand on this floor, and I will never cheer, and I will never support anyone who celebrates destroying the image of God.

Sen. Dan Patrick delivers a passionate speech in favor of House Bill 2.
Sen. Dan Patrick during debate on House Bill 2.

There’s two ways you can go in life, a lot of people say I believe in God, but there’s a quantum leap when you go from believing in God to believing God. A lot of people believe in God. If you believe God, how would God vote tonight if he were here?And I know I’ll get raked over by the liberal blogs and some people in the media for bringing this up on the floor, but let’s just be honest. Are we a nation that stands for a Judeo-Christian ethic, or are we not? Do we get down on our knees and pray when our children get sick, or when we have a tragedy in West, Texas, or 9/11, who do we turn to then? We turn to God, and say, “God please bless us. “But on this case, “no, no, no, God, sorry, we’re not with you on this one.”  Well, I say the people who are for this bill aren’t any better than people who are against it, aren’t any more godly. I’m just saying we’re listening a little closer.

So I’m proud to stand and vote for this bill. I believe we are improving women’s healthcare, and I believe we care about these children. As they said, when it comes to choice, when it comes to choice, the baby doesn’t have a choice, the baby doesn’t get a vote, but tonight the baby’s going to get, by my count, 19 votes. 19 votes, every Republican and one courageous Democrat will stand and vote for the babies and women’s healthcare.

And I respect everyone’s comments, and I hope you respect mine, because you’re passionate, I’ve heard the passion from my dear friend Senator Whitmire, from my good friend, I’ve heard your passion, but let me tell you, you don’t get to outrank me on passion. And I’m just as passionate, and I care just as much, and I know that this is the right vote on this bill, on this night, on this time. Thank you very much.”

Jesus wept.

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