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Forrest for the Trees

"Jesus Christ on Killing" by Sgt. Charlie Eipper
Amazon.com
"Jesus Christ on Killing" by Sgt. Charlie Eipper

We’ve found it, the mother of all WTF. We have found Peak WTF. After this one, we may have to retire WTF Friday, just hang it up in recognition that nothing will ever top this.

But, first, let’s look at the runner-ups this week.

The Texas Nationalist Movement—”The state’s leading independence organization”—had themselves a meetin’ down in San Antonio and resolved to redouble their minority outreach. But first, they had to run Kanye West out of town.

“We are defending our culture because some rap singer from Los Angeles wanted to show his video on the walls of The Alamo, and a bunch of blue shirts (Texas Nationalists) showed up and said, ‘Nuh-uh!’” Belmore said.

That is a kind of charming image: A bunch of heavily armed far-right secessionists chasing off an extremely wealthy and successful rapper by going, “Nuh-uh!” (And Kanye retreats, with echoes of “na-na, na-na, boo-boo/stick your head in doo-doo” ringing in his diamond-encrusted ears.)

Oh, and “blueshirts”? Guys, if you’re rebranding to appeal to a more mainstream audience, perhaps it’s best not to refer to yourself with the same term used for multiple fascist causes around the globe.

Anyway, Texas’ leading independence organization is trying to bring more minorities into the cause.

“I’m not talking about pandering, let the other side do that,” he said. “We have much more in common with minorities than they (liberals) do.”

Suggested slogans: “Secession: It’s Not Just for Slave-Owners Anymore” or “This Ain’t Your Grandaddy’s Secession Movement” or “Secession: Second Time’s the Charm.”

If and when Texas does secede, I know who could be head of the FBI, or maybe poet laureate: Sgt. Charlie Eipper of the Wichita Falls Police Department. Eipper once killed a man in the line of duty. Then he was troubled that the indiscriminate killing in Rambo IV would give Christians the wrong idea… that there’s anything wrong with a high body count. As he told the Wichita Falls Times Record:

“[Rambo] didn’t want to, but finally did. Their boat got taken over by river pirates. He had to kill them to save everybody,” Eipper recalls. “When Rambo was dropping the missionaries off at their destination, the lead missionary was stepping off the boat and turned to Rambo. ‘I know you think what you did is right,’ the missionary said, ‘but it’s never right to take a life.’”

Eipper cringed. “I thought, ‘What if there’s a young believer in Christ watching this? What if it’s somebody who is in the Marine Corps? Or an officer? They’re going to be so confused. They’ll think, ‘Surely this guy is speaking on authority of Scripture.’”

So, he wrote a book—self-published on Amazon.com—called Jesus Christ on Killing. Which is only a slightly-less disturbing title than Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Christ, IMHO. Eipper’s book contains chapters such as “Thou Shall Not Kill?” and “Jesus the Man of War.” As the Times Record describes it, “he is articulate on the subject of Jesus Christ and killing.”

“The Scriptures are clear that God condones the use of deadly force in killing whenever we are threatened,” Eipper said.

Stand your ground, boys. That’s what Jesus would do.

Turns out that Jesus is coming back and boy is he pissed. Says Eipper:

“When Jesus comes back, he will be the man of war. When he comes back, there will be a whole lot of killing going on.”

Happy Good Friday, everyone!

Texas Barnett Shale gas drilling rig near Alvarado, Texas
Barnett Shale rig

New research suggests that pollution from fracking contributes a much larger share of Dallas-Fort Worth’s smog problem than state officials have said. The study, conducted by Mahdi Ahmadi, a graduate student at the University of North Texas, was presented at a clean-air meeting this morning in Arlington. The Observer received a copy of the presentation.

Ahmadi analyzed data from 16 air-quality monitors in the Metroplex going back to 1997, looking for a connection between oil and gas production and ozone. Seven of the sites were east of Denton, outside of the Barnett Shale, and nine were located in the shale area, close to oil and gas activity.

Ahmadi’s twist is that he adjusted for meteorological conditions, including air temperature, wind speed and sunlight—key ingredients in ozone formation. Backing natural factors out of the data allowed Ahmadi to better pinpoint human factors, including the link between fracking and ozone formation.

He found that while smog levels have dropped overall since the late 1990s, ozone levels in fracking areas have been increasing steadily and rising at a much higher rate than in areas without oil and gas activity.

“This is a small but important victory for real science in this process, as opposed to the completely politicized approach by TCEQ to prevent the imposition of new controls of any kind,” said Jim Schermbeck, director of North Texas clean-air group Downwinders at Risk.

Since 2008, meteorologically-adjusted ozone in the fracking region has increased 12 percent while in the non-fracking region ozone rose just 4 percent.

UNT ozone study

UNT air quality study winter monthsThe trend during the winter was “even more striking,” said Dr. Kuruvilla John, the UNT engineering professor who oversaw the study. During winter months, the fracking region saw a 21-percent increase in ozone, while in the non-fracking area it went up 5 percent.

That’s significant because ozone season has traditionally been confined to the summer months. Moreover, EPA’s smog standards have become increasingly stringent over time, as scientists find more evidence for health problems at lower levels. If the EPA were to lower the ozone standard to 60 or 65 parts per billion—it currently sits at 75 ppb—the Dallas-Fort Worth region could find itself out of compliance even during winter months.

Regardless, Ahmadi’s research directly challenges the message from Gov. Rick Perry and Texas’ top environmental officials, who routinely dismiss links between smog, and oil and gas activity. On its website, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality claims that because the wind “blows emissions from the Barnett Shale away from the DFW area,” those emissions from fracking are “not expected to significantly affect ozone in the DFW area.”

The new UNT research isn’t the only recent study suggesting that the state’s scientific understanding of ozone is shaky. A study conducted for the Alamo Area Council of Governments, released earlier this month, found that fracking activity in South Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale would drive large increases in the two main ozone ingredients and imperil San Antonio’s compliance with federal smog rules.

Apparently, the group’s public probing of the fracking-smog links didn’t sit too well with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The Austin American-Statesman reported on Monday:

“The Texas environmental agency has frozen funding for a San Antonio area governmental coalition’s air quality improvement work after an official there publicly shared modeling results that suggested fracking contributed pollution to the city.

“Last summer the Alamo Area Council of Governments made public a report that found that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the Eagle Ford shale field endangers air quality in the San Antonio area – and, to a milder extent, the Austin area.

“The Alamo group, composed of officials representing local governments over a 12-county area, did not share the report’s data beforehand with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which had paid for its collection.

“So when it came time last fall to dole out money to councils of government from across the state – including the council from the Austin area – all but the Alamo area council were rewarded with a roughly 30 percent uptick in Legislature-appropriated money to carry out air quality monitoring and planning work.”

 

KETK's Neal Barton
KETKNBC.com
KETK's Neal Barton

Sometimes it’s baffling that the United States, unlike most of the world, continues to have a persistently large population of climate change deniers. But, then, you see something like this—a preposterously misleading commentary on climate change that ran on KETK, the NBC affiliate in Tyler—and you begin to understand why. The two-minute segment, which ran on Friday, was billed as “Global Warming, Laughable” and featured the commentary of KETK News Director Neal Barton. The piece is riddled with factual errors, bizarre assertions and it cites an obscure scientist and a committee of the United Kingdom House of Commons. Oh, and it’s also plagiarized from a British newspaper. Basically, Barton read portions of a story from the Yorkshire Evening Post on his “POV” segment, passing the views off as his own.

The story (or in this case, a text version of what aired) opens innocently enough:

Recently, a UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its first report in seven years on the now widely accepted phenomenon known as “climate change.”

For the record, the IPCC is the global authority on climate science, consisting of hundreds of climate authorities from dozens of countries. The panel’s recent findings call climate change “unequivocal” and warn of dire effects from sea-level rise, wildfires, flood and drought.

But then, Barton’s POV takes an abrupt (far-right) turn away from the broad scientific mainstream into a kind-of false-balance upside-down world.

But, one teacher says it’s all bunk and you won’t hear this on the mainstream media. So I’m glad to serve equal time.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee published a report, damning the media for confusing ‘fact’ with opinion and pushing the message that, in terms of freak weather, ‘the worst is yet to come.’

Yeah, sure it is.

Barton doesn’t mention that the House of Commons is a British institution. But more important, he gets the committee’s report completely wrong. The report, in fact, laments  that the public is misinformed on what scientists know about climate change, and criticizes the media in the UK—the BBC in particular—for scientific inaccuracy and relying on “experts” with an agenda. Which is precisely what Barton does. So he says in his commentary:

Emeritus Professor Les Woodcock goes against the grain and when a reporter asks the former NASA scientist about “climate change” and “global warming,” he laughs.

He says the term “climate change” is meaningless. The Earth’s climate has been changing since the Earth was formed 1,000 million years ago. The theory of “man-made climate change” is an unsubstantiated hypothesis [about] our climate [which says it] has been adversely affected by the burning of fossil fuels in the last 100 years, causing the average temperature on the Earth’s surface to increase very slightly, but with disastrous environmental consequences..

Notably, Professor Woodcock gets the age of Earth wrong. it’s not 1 billion years old, it’s about 4.54 billion. But, then, why is Barton quoting a British professor when the U.S. has most of the world’s prominent climate denialists? I emailed Barton yesterday to ask about some of his claims and he sent me a link to a news article in the Yorkshire Evening Post, one of the leading newspapers of Leeds, West Yorkshire, England. Which is kind of a weird thing to do because, as it turns out, nearly every word of Barton’s commentary is lifted verbatim from the Yorkshire Evening Post story, which ran in February, including the quote from Woodcock. The only difference is that Barton noticeably pauses over the word “reproducible” twice, and then skips over it. He also adds a few choice interjections (“Amen sir”).

I asked Barton in an email about his apparent plagiarism.

“We’ve only been keeping records for 100 years,” he responded. “I was told this when I did tv weather 30-years ago. That’s was before I went through 40 hours of college meteorology. I was told this by meteorologist who trained me. They were absolutely right then—and now. The Evening Post was right on it.”

I asked him if it was appropriate to plagiarize in a commentary.

He responded (spacing in the original):

I attributed right from the article.

I said where I got it from.

Plagiarism is just saying here is what I think and never mentioned where you found it.

I cite articles all the time.

Of course it’s ok in a commentary.

It’s the basis many times for the commentary.

That’s where you start.

You agree or sometimes disagree.

This is not the first time Barton, or KETK, has run into controversy. In 2010, Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Bud Kennedy criticized the station for its cheerleading of a tea party event in Tyler that featured Glenn Beck and Rick Perry. The reporter responsible for that report explained to StinkyJournalism.com, “The TV station I work for, and I don’t necessarily agree, has taken a right-wing approach.”

But Barton explained that KETK is “right on track with our coverage of the Tea Party.”

Rick Perry at "The Response" in August 2011
Patrick Michels
Texas Gov. Rick Perry's prayer rally, The Response, at Reliant Stadium in Houston.

The companies angling to build a facility for high-level nuclear waste in Texas have found a high-level cheerleader: Rick Perry. This week the governor sent a letter to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and speaker of the House Joe Straus, urging the Legislature “to develop a Texas solution for the long-term resolution of [high-level waste] currently residing inside our borders.”

Perry’s boosterish letter follows Straus’ January directive to a House committee to study storage and disposal options for high-level nuclear waste.

The use of the phrase “Texas solution” in Perry’s letter is interesting. Go to texassolution.com and you will find a slick site for Waste Control Specialists, the radioactive waste company developed by the late Harold Simmons. Waste Control’s Andrews County dump was predicated on the notion that it would only take low-level radioactive waste, but just this week, the company began accepting—for temporary storage—transuranic waste from New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Project following a radiation leak at that facility.

In February, I asked Waste Control spokesman Chuck McDonald if the company was considering high-level waste.

“It is something we are open to the possibility of,” McDonald said. “We would obviously have conversations with the community in Andrews. … There is a new recognition that something may need to be done and interim storage may be something where we can provide a solution for the state and others if it comes to that. It’s very early in this process.”

Perry doesn’t mention Waste Control specifically and, indeed, there are other interests floating proposals for storing high-level waste in West Texas. Austin-based AFCI Texas, for example, has been sniffing around Big Spring for a while. AFCI is co-owned by a Perry crony—Bill Jones, who the governor appointed to serve on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department board.

Officials in Loving County, which is the smallest county by population in the nation, have also expressed interest in hosting spent nuclear fuel.

Perry told a West Texas TV station yesterday that he believes there is a “legitimate site in West Texas.”

“Sure. I think there are a couple of sites in the State of Texas that the local communities actively are pursuing that possibility,” Perry told KCBD during a stop in Lubbock.

Along with his letter, Perry included a 49-page report drafted by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which lays out the options for storing high-level nuclear waste in Texas. Currently, the spent nuclear fuel from the nation’s 100 or so nuclear reactors has no permanent home. The federal government’s preferred option—burying the waste deep underground in the Nevadan desert at Yucca Mountain—has been more or less scuttled. In January 2012, a blue ribbon commission (are all commissions adorned with blue ribbons?) appointed by Obama recommended that work begin in earnest to develop one or more centralized storage facilities along with one or more deep geologic burial sites. The idea is that the waste would be shipped from the nuclear reactors to be stored temporarily for decades, until (or if) it could then be buried somewhere.

The report takes quite a bit of editorial license and seems to be particularly concerned with how to make a public-private storage option work. “The lack of an alternative to onsite indefinite storage is hindering nuclear energy from being fairly considered as an energy option and is an embarrassment to this country’s reputation for its capability to handle its waste.

Basically, the report suggests that the U.S. Department of Energy should own a centralized storage facility in Texas, where the spent fuel from nuclear power plants can be sent and held for decades, while it works on a deep geological disposal site. A private company, the report recommends, could operate the facility. The reason for the public-private arrangement is that the federal government would have title to the waste in case something goes wrong. Otherwise, building such a facility “may be too uncertain for a private company to attempt.” And we wouldn’t want that.

The authors stress the importance of finding a community that embraces radioactive waste, specifically citing the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in New Mexico and Waste Control’s dump in Andrews. “Finding a site that has local and state support would greatly enhance the chance of a private centralized interim storage site being successfully sited and constructed,” the report concludes.

The legal, political and technical hurdles involved in establishing even an interim storage site, much less a Yucca Mountain-style disposal site, are obviously significant. Just for starters, Congress would have to change the law to allow for the arrangement TCEQ/Perry is proposing. There’s also the teensy issue of transportation. Moving all the nuclear waste to a single central storage unit would take 20 years and up to 10,700 shipments by rail or 53,000 by truck. The radioactive waste would inevitably pass through thousands of communities, many of which might not like the idea of serving as  corridor for a private company to profit from nuclear waste.

To my mind there are echoes of Rick Perry’s other splashy proposals: Think Trans-Texas Corridor or the mandatory HPV vaccine mandates—cronyism posing as bold public policy. Notably, both Trans-Texas Corridor and the HPV mandate were high-profile flops that nearly cost him his political career. Perry is not known as a Big Idea man or a policy wonk, despite his recent makeover with those MSNBC glasses and his appearance at Davos. Merits aside, his policy proposals have typically been the product of close allies and business interests pushing an agenda and using Perry as a pitchman. And they’ve not been popular with the conservative grassroots.

Perry’s executive order requiring Texas girls to get vaccinated for HPV caused an uproar on the religious right, who thought the state should have no business inoculating girls against a sexually-transmitted disease. Others were repelled by the crony capitalism angle: Perry’s former chief of staff, Mike Toomey, was a lobbyist for Merck, the company that sold the HPV vaccine Gardasil. Perry was forced to scrap the mandate and it haunted him when he ran for president in 2011-2012.

The Trans-Texas Corridor had something for everyone to hate: Rural Texans took exception to the use of eminent domain to seize land for a private company; environmentalists loathed the notion of building a vast new fossil fuel-driven infrastructure; and tea party types (before they were called that) saw the making of a vast intercontinental conspiracy at the heart of the Corridor.

It’s not clear whether there is a larger plan to the high-level waste deal, or this is just the governor’s usual business cheerleading. But the extensive TCEQ report, commissioned by Perry, suggests that there is some long-term effort at work. The question is whether the conservative grassroots takes any interest in the issue. There is not an obvious bugaboo as with Trans-Texas corridor or the HPV vaccine.

If the private interests can lock down local support perhaps any widespread opposition can be blunted from the get-go.

WTF Friday: Ban Everything!

Don Huffines approaches Peak Dallas
DonHuffines.com
Don Huffines approaches Peak Dallas

And now on this day, gathered WTF faithful, let us turn to our brother, the late great Bill Hicks, for a few words on Creationists:

But get this, I actually asked one of these guys, “Ok, dinosaur fossils—how does that fit into your scheme of life?” 

He said: “Dinosaur fossils? God put those here to test our faith.”
“I think God put you here to test my faith.”

Sady, Hicks didn’t live long enough to have his faith tested by Don Huffines, a Dallas multi-millionaire tea partier opposed to taxes and government (unless it’s taxes and government he can control and profit from, natch)—and the next state senator from white, whiter, whitest Dallas. Huffines, who looks a bit like Dan Quayle’s brother from another mother, may have finally achieved Peak Dallas (Exhibit A: this family portrait/J. Crew catalog). But, more to the point, Huffines is an out-and-proud creationist. He wants Texas public school-kids to be taught creationism, dammit. As he told KERA this week:

“I certainly think all students should be aware of creationism. They should be aware of that, absolutely. Teaching it as a science, it should be taught on equal footing.”

Speaking of creationism, there must be something in the water down in Glen Rose. The town of 2,000 is home to the Creation Evidence Museum, a nuclear power plant (coincidence) and at least one local pol with some interesting ideas. Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Bud Kennedy flagged a letter in the local paper this week penned by one Eric Bolanger, former candidate for Glen Rose mayor. Now in the political food chain, a failed small-town mayoral candidate probably ranks somewhere around phytoplankton—but Belanger has some sound advice for remaking the “dinosaur just waiting to die” that is the Texas GOP. Key message: Don’t be like the Marxist-Democrats with their minority outreach!

Until the GOP understands this fact: our modern day immigrants are not the same as our past and that they do not hold the same values, the GOP has condemned themselves to history.

Equality and diversity have been sponsored by the Democrats and are not the way to victory, but defeat.

Mainstream Republicans like John McCain just talk about “building the dang fence.” Bolanger wants to do it—and he’s got a plan.

We the people of Texas MUST form a 501c3 trust whose goal is to build a huge private cement wall on private land – from Brownsville to El Paso. Government will NOT stop our nation from becoming a Guatemala. Only “We the People” can.

Meanwhile, back in Dallas, the liberty-loving folks can hear the distant footsteps of fascism coming in the form of a proposed fee on single-use plastic bags, which are better known at WTF HQ as #freedombags. According to Dallas City Councilman Rick Callahan:

“Let’s just ban everything. That what this sounds like.”

“Ban Everything”: Someone please put that up as a bumper-sticker on CafePress.

And, finally, let’s end with the poetic Twitter musings of state Rep. Bill Zedler (R-Arlington). First, he got those two Castro brothers—Julian and what’s his name—mixed up in defending Buc-ee’s from the boycott that ensued after the chain’s owners announced their support for Sen. Dan Patrick’s lieutenant governor bid. It was Joaquin the congressman, not Julian the mayor, who called on people to boycott Buc-ee’s, or as Zedler calls it, Bucks-ee’s.

Also: Is it such a good idea to fill a store up with gasoline while you’re buying beef jerky? Maybe banning everything isn’t such a bad idea.

Austin Energy's solar farm in Webberville
Solar Austin
Austin Energy's solar farm in Webberville

One of the most inexorable and (buzzword coming…) disruptive trends in the energy world has, for some time, been the precipitous decline in the cost of solar. Like other renewable energy technologies, solar power has obvious environmental and climate benefits but hasn’t necessarily been competitive, in strict market terms, with fossil fuels. That’s changing very rapidly—even in Texas.

Two recently announced solar projects in West Texas show how solar is becoming more than just a niche source of energy.

First, there’s Austin Energy’s brewing deal with SunEdison for a 150-megawatt solar project in West Texas. The size of the project is significant. It’s enough to power 14,000 homes and represents the second-largest solar project in Texas, following a 400 MW installation commissioned by CPS Energy, San Antonio’s city-owned utility. But the more salient fact is the price. Although the exact figure has not been released, it’s somewhere around 5 cents per kilowatt-hour—perhaps the cheapest price in the U.S. ever. A nickel per kilowatt-hour is impressively low.

For comparison’s sake, Austin Energy’s 30-megawatt solar farm just east of Austin in Webberville priced in at 16.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. That was just a few years ago. The typical residential customer in Austin currently pays about 10-11 cents per kilowatt-hour and it’s thought that the SunEdison project will slightly lower electricity rates for Austinites. Finally, and perhaps most important, the solar project is cheaper than building a new natural gas plant, when considering the costs of each over the life of the facilities.

Austin Energy received “a substantial number of bids” totaling 1 gigawatt all under 5.5 cents per kilowatt hour, said Michael Osborne, one of the gurus of the renewable energy industry in Texas and, until recently, a special assistant at Austin Energy.

“If you can aggressively price solar below [5 cents per kilowatt-hour] that is going to be a revolution,” Osborne said at a recent Solar Austin gathering. “Solar at that price is going to beat natural gas anytime.”

Osborne attributes cheap solar prices, in part, to the maturation of the market. “Solar is the new wind,” he says. Texas, of course, is a global leader in wind power but in the early years the Texas wind industry was buffeted by engineering problems, timid investors and questions about how to fit wind—with its fickle nature—into the grid. Similarly, solar developers now enjoy more sophisticated financing options, cheaper construction costs and just the general benefits of experience. “The same thing happened in the wind business: It’s a sign of the market maturing.”

The other first-of-its-kind project to be announced this year is FirstSolar’s Barilla Solar Project, a 22-MW array in Pecos County. To date, virtually all of the solar deals in Texas have been driven by the renewable energy goals of city-owned utilities. FirstSolar’s Barilla project is different; it’s a “merchant” plant that will have to compete in the open market. The developer will build the plant without a firm deal in place and then try to sell the power to an array of customers.

“The merchant plant is a really big deal,” said Stan Pipkin, CEO of Austin-based Lighthouse Solar. “It’s price-based and market-based.”

Osborne projects that 200 to 300 megawatts of merchant solar will be built in the next year or so.

Still, some in the renewable energy business think solar still has a ways to go to close the gap. In the utility world, the concept is “grid parity”—the almost-talismanic threshold at which a budding energy source can produce power equal to or cheaper than what’s coming off the grid.

Or, in layman’s terms, it’s when solar (or wind or geothermal, etc) officially kick coal, nuclear and natural gas’ ass.

Shalini Ramanathan, vice president for origination with RES Americas, points to wholesale prices in ERCOT, which hover around 3 cents per kilowatt-hour, a fair sight lower than the levelized cost (5 cents/kWh) for even the cheapest solar.

“My sense is that solar is getting closer than ever to grid parity but it’s not quite there yet,” she said.

But that gap is deceptively large. For one, notoriously volatile natural gas is the prime driver of wholesale electricity prices in ERCOT. If the fracking bonanza fizzles or natural gas exports overseas pushes the commodity price of natural gas higher, electricity prices will rise too. Renewables on the other hand provide price certainty decades into the future.

“Uncertainty in the ERCOT market could be part of the appeal of solar and wind,” Ramanathan said. “It’s so obvious that sometimes developers don’t pitch it this way: But once you build it, the fuel is free. It can provide a really good hedge against power prices from fossil sources increasing in the future.”

Wind power received a huge boost from Texas government when the Texas Legislature passed and Gov. George W. Bush (that hippie!) signed legislation establishing mandates for utilities to purchase green energy. No such concession has been made for solar in Texas, even though the resource offers the same environmental and economic benefits and is arguably the most obvious solution to the specter of brownouts on the ERCOT grid. The tea party’s anti-government grip has made public policy of this sort a non-starter. Still, if solar can assert itself in the market, the industry may have a sunny future in Texas.

John Carona
State Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas)

At the current rate, there may be a day in the not-so-distant future when every Austin lawmaker and staffer goes to work for the payday loan industry, leaving no one, at last, to pretend to care about usurious rates, the cycle of debt and criminalization of borrowers.

I exaggerate, of course, but only slightly. The list of legislators and their staff who have moved, sometimes overnight, from the Capitol to the industry is impressively long. As Texans for Public Justice found last year, 10 percent of the lobbyists employed by lending interests at the Legislature were former lawmakers. Among them was Rep. Vicki Truitt, the Southlake Republican who carried the “reform” bills in 2011 and chaired the House committee that oversees the industry. And it’s bipartisan, too: the former chief of staff to Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), Trent Townsend, is a lobbyist for Cash America, EZCorp and First Cash Financial.

Perhaps we need to retire the “revolving door” metaphor and just think of the industry, the lobby and the state government as different chambers in a giant shark tank, like a high-dollar Sea World for predators.

I raise the issue now because of a rather astonishing letter to the editor published this weekend in the Galveston Daily News. It’s penned by one Adam Burklund, the former general counsel for state Sen. John Carona. Remember Carona? He’s the (recently defeated) Dallas Republican who carried a payday loan reform bill in the last session so weak that it split consumer advocates and faith groups into two camps. He’s also the guy who accused his fellow Republican senators of being “shills” for payday loan lobbyists and then complained that he “just want[ed] to go home and feed [his] cat.” Anyway, Burklund used to work for him as general counsel before peeling off to go work for—clutch your pearls now—the main payday loan industry group, the Consumer Service Alliance of Texas—the good people who helped write said legislation carried by Burklund’s boss last year.

Burklund was reacting to an op-ed co-authored by three Democratic state legislators who made the rather anodyne observation, “During the last legislative session, industry lobbyists blocked the reform bill we tried to pass.”

Burklund seems sincerely outraged at that assertion, lashing out, in turn, at the three Democrats, Houston trial lawyer Steve Mostyn, Wendy Davis and what he calls “disingenuous special interest groups.”

Every time the industry pushes for a compromise, some of the special interest groups immediately characterize that compromise as an “industry proposal” — and oppose it, hoping to push the industry further.

Such devious behavior on the part of special interests does nothing to help consumers, nor does it advance the debate over a problem that is desperately in need of a solution. It only serves to widen the rift between consumer groups, the industry and anyone else seeking to score political points.

Who are these “devious,” all-powerful “special interest groups” capable of thwarting the good, reform-minded payday loan industry with its 82 lobbyists, $4 million in campaign contributions and allies in government? Burklund never quite spells it out but we can only guess that he’s referring to consumer advocacy groups like Texas Appleseed and faith groups like the Texas Baptist Life Commission. In fact, some of the religious groups were the most adamantly opposed to Carona’s compromise because they viewed it as not just a compromise, but fundamentally compromised, ceding far too much ground to the lenders. I guess having God on your side might make you a “special interest” but unless you’ve got the cash too, you’re in for an uphill fight at the Lege.

At least give credit to Carona for acknowledging how money had limited the options: “You have to get the most you can get with the political support that you have,” Carona said in March 2013. “This industry is in business and this industry has amassed enormous political support at the Capitol.”

At the Capitol, it’s not so much about what the lobby gets as what it prevents others from getting.

Joe-Straus-house-floor
Patrick Michels
Joe Straus

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the embattled corporate-funded group that pairs lawmakers with special interests to write legislation in secret, is coming to Texas, and Joe Straus is helping to throw a “welcome party.”

ALEC is holding its annual meeting in Dallas this year from July 30 to August 1. In a letter composed on ALEC letterhead obtained by the Observer, Straus—the speaker of the Texas House often celebrated for his relative moderation—and other Republican lawmakers ask potential donors to attend a meeting at the exclusive Austin Club on April 1 to help plan a “Welcome party to kick off the conference.” The letter is signed by Straus, state Sen. Kelly Hancock (R-North Richland Hills), Rep. Jodie Laubenberg (R-Parker) and Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford), who is the first vice-chair of ALEC.

ALEC and the legislators present an array of “sponsorship” opportunities”—from the $5,000 Jim Bowie Level to the $50,000 William B. Travis Level—and make clear that donors will receive access in exchange. (Curiously, Sam Houston, who is by far a more important figure in the Texas Revolution than Travis, receives lower billing at the $25,000 level.)

“The reception provides an excellent networking opportunity for state legislators, industry leaders and policy experts,” the document states. At the $50,000 level, donors are promised, among other perks, “five invitations to VIP events, including the Leadership Reception and Dinner.”

The documents direct recipients to Doner Fundraising, an Austin-based firm that’s consulted for a variety of Republican candidates. The firm is apparently casting a wide net, sending the invitation to a variety of progressive groups, including the Center for Public Policy Priorities and the Texas League of Conservation Voters.

“They’re losing money, so I’m not surprised ALEC would come to Texas to try and hide from the national notoriety and bad press of recent years,” said Phillip Martin of Progress Texas, a Democratic-affiliated group that has dogged ALEC.

ALEC suffered an exodus of members and donors last year following revelations that the organization had promoted the Florida “stand your ground” law that figured prominently in the Trayvon Martin killing. The Guardian reported in December that ALEC had hemorrhaged more than 400 legislators and 60 corporate funders, plunging the organization into financial crisis. Among the legislators quitting the group was Straus lieutenant Rep. Jim Keffer, an Eastland Republican who just pulled through a tough primary challenge against a tea party opponent.

Straus is generally considered one of the few bulwarks in state government against tea party excesses. Why would he join forces with ALEC?

His spokesman, former journalist Jason Embry, wouldn’t comment, saying only that Straus is not a member of ALEC. Of course, it helps to have powerful and wealthy friends when the peasants are at the castle gate.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry
Patrick Michels
Gov. Rick Perry

The debate over the “Texas miracle” just won’t die.

By my estimation (and a search of the Nexis news database) the “Texas miracle” emerged as a term in 2010-2011 and really gained currency when Rick Perry ran for president. Not to be confused with that other, earlier “Texas miracle”—the largely-debunked Bush-era notion that standardized testing bumped up the scores of Texas schoolchildren—this Texas miracle has to do with the state’s economy, job growth, relatively low unemployment and growing population.

It’s a silly phrase, because even if you think there’s much to admire in the Texas economy, there’s nothing particularly miraculous about it. Unemployment, for example, is lower here than the national average but not by much. In December, Texas had 6 percent unemployment, tied for 17th best in the U.S. with West Virginia and Missouri; the national unemployment rate is 6.7 percent. And many of those jobs are attributable to the miracle of fossil fuels underlying a good portion of our state. The other thing is that the proponents of the “Texas miracle” attribute it not to divine intervention but a constellation of Republican policies.

We all know it by heart: Low taxes. Light regulation. Pro-business. It’s typically the second thing GOP candidates for office mention right after how much they hate Obama.

The chairman of the Dallas Fed, Richard Fisher, is a tireless Texas miracle zealot, giving speeches and providing data-driven studies to back up his belief that Texas holds economic lessons the rest of the country should heed.

There’s a whole boosterish book devoted to the topic by Erica Grieder of Texas Monthly. I reviewed—fairly critically—the book here.

Paul Krugman has been one of the big guns on the other side, firing some of the first shots at the national level in 2011, when he disparaged the Texas miracle as “a myth.”

The latest entrant into the debate: an article by Phillip Longman in Washington Monthly. Now, first things first: Why does some guy writing in Washington Monthly care about the ins and outs of the Texas economy? Because, as he points out, Texas has had some of the best job growth during the Obama years, even as the state has lurched further to the right.

“Progressives, and everyone earnestly interested in improving the nation’s economic performance, need to confront all this Texas bragging and find out what, if anything, it proves,” Longman writes.

There’s a lot of work done in the article. For one, Longman deflates some of the overheated Texas vs. California rhetoric by pointing out that California isn’t hemorrhaging all that many people to Texas. (Although the intense bitching about Californians in Austin would suggest otherwise.)

Using U.S. Census data, Longman argues that most of Texas’ population growth comes not from Americans “voting with their feet” and moving to Texas but from a high birth rate and immigration, much of it unauthorized.

He also argues that the oil boom is responsible for a greater share of the state’s GDP, and job growth, than is usually accounted for.

But perhaps the most interesting points are scored in attacking the very notion that Texas is low-tax and business-friendly. It’s a thrillingly subversive argument. As Longman writes:

[F]or most Americans, as well as for most businesses, moving to Texas would not mean paying less in taxes, and for many it would mean paying more.

Oh yes, I know what you’ve heard. And it’s true, as the state’s boosters like to brag, that Texas does not have an income tax. But Texas has sales and property taxes that make its overall burden of taxation on low-wage families much heavier than the national average, while the state also taxes the middle class at rates as high or higher than in California.

If you’re a rich Texan, you do indeed pay low taxes, but if you’re poor or middle class you’re, excuse the phrase, Taxed Enough Already. This suggests that we’re having the wrong conversation. It’s not about low taxes vs. high taxes but who bears the burden. But you’re not going to hear a Rick Perry or Dan Patrick or Ted Cruz go there. Politically, Texas economic boosterism sells for the GOP and no data point is going to change that.

Finally, Longman makes his most startling point, one that flies in the face of Rick Perry’s central case for the “Texas model.” Businesses in Texas pay high taxes… at least relative to the national average and wasteland states like Massachusetts (aka “Taxachusetts”) and Illinois.

But most Texas businesses, especially small ones, don’t get such treatment. Instead, they face total effective tax rates that are, by bottom-line measures, greater than those in even the People’s Republic of California. For example, according to a joint study by the accounting firm Ernst & Young and the Council on State Taxation, in fiscal year 2012 state and local business taxes in California came to 4.5 percent of private-sector gross state product. This compares with a 4.8 percent average for all fifty states—and a rate of 5.2 percent in Texas.

With the exception of New York, every major state in the country, including New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, has a lower total effective business tax rate than Texas.

The Ernst & Young/Council on State Taxation study cited by Longman is just one way of slicing the data, of course. And the study’s authors acknowledge that their method does not look at competitiveness. However, a 2011 study by the same groups did rank states for local and state tax competitiveness for new investment. Texas came in 20th, right between Pennsylvania and Indiana. We’re No. 20! We’re No. 20! We’re No. 20! … It just doesn’t have much of a ring to it.

Meet Jim Hogan, Democratic Mystery Man

Jim Hogan had no money, no campaign and no political experience. So how did he beat Kinky Friedman and Hugh Fitzsimons in the race for Texas Agriculture Commissioner?
Jim Hogan
Cleburne Times-Review
Jim Hogan

Some candidates win by working their butts off, shaking hands, kissing babies and speaking to Rotary Clubs. Others prevail by raising and spending more cash. And some, like Jim Hogan, just sit back, relax and wait for God to work a miracle.

Hogan had a lot of folks asking “Who the hell is Jim Hogan?” last night, when the Cleburne insurance salesman placed first in a three-way Democratic primary for Texas agriculture commissioner. He bested Hugh Fitzsimons III and landed in a runoff with Kinky Friedman.

Hogan spent less than $5,000, maintains no campaign website, has never been involved in politics and ran his entire campaign, if you can call it that, from his home computer. Fitzsimons, on the other hand, appeared at events with Wendy Davis, hired professional consultants and produced slick campaign literature. Fitzsimons, a bison farmer from the San Antonio area, spent $40,000 and had more than $85,000 on hand when he lost. He got 23 percent of the vote while Hogan pulled in 39 percent. Kinky came in second with 38 percent.

So how did Hogan do it? Or was it just a fluke, a result of the near anonymity of candidates in the weak Democratic field for almost all statewide offices?

I talked to Hogan today, and he attributes his victory to the Almighty.

“It was a miracle and only God could’ve pulled it off,” he told me. “That doesn’t sell papers and you may think that’s corny but I truly believe it.”

I can understand why God wouldn’t want the atheistic Kinky Friedman representing God’s Party but what about Fitzsimons, who actually campaigned?

Hogan scoffs at the idea that “the Establishment” has anything to teach him.

“When I called Democrats and told them I was gonna be on the ticket first thing they said was, ‘How long you been in politics?’ I said, ‘I’m not no politician.’ They said, ‘Let me tell you something: It takes a lot of money to win a state race and you can’t win.’ I said, ‘Let me tell you something, y’all haven’t won since 1994.'”

And that’s true enough. Democrats have lost every single one of the last 100 or so statewide races since 1994. Hogan thought he’d try something a little different: He wouldn’t really campaign.

“Basically I run on the internet and a phone,” he said. “My motto is: My phone and Internet can outrun any jet plane or car across the state of Texas. I don’t have to be there.”

But how did voters know about him at all? Details about his candidacy only appear in a handful of small-town papers.

“All you gotta do is Google my name—’jim hogan ag commissioner’—and there’s enough on there.”

Hogan says he signed up for the Democratic ticket only because the field was weaker than the Republican slate, which featured five candidates.

“I can’t whup all five of ‘em but I might whup one of ‘em,” he said. “Sign me up!”

To be fair, Hogan has more experience than Kinky Friedman with farm and ranch affairs. He says he’s been involved in agriculture from childhood and ran a dairy farm from 1973 to 2005. Now in the insurance business, Hogan can speak at length about the economics of irrigated agriculture and the functions of the Texas Department of Agriculture. Still, he doesn’t have much of a platform.

“You’ve gotta get in and meet the people, see what’s been going on in the past. It’s just like running a business, you gotta get your hands around it.”\n\nThe reality is that Hogan is precisely the wrong person to be asking for answers to why he won. The Texas Democratic primaries produce all sorts of weird and unexpected results. Kesha Rogers, the LaRouche Democrat who wants to colonize Mars, has won two nominations for Congress and is in a runoff to challenge U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in November. Wendy Davis lost the primary last night in a number of border counties to political unknown Ray Madrigal.

For years, Gene Kelly, a vanity candidate who refused to give interviews or campaign, would give mainstream Democratic candidates a run for their money. One could go on… Democrats face a Catch-22: Strong candidates typically don’t want to run statewide because they’ll almost certainly lose to a Republican, but weak candidates draw little interest and excitement from the Democratic base. Anecdotally, I asked half a dozen partisan Democrats today who they voted for in the ag race. Not one could remember.

In any case. the Kinky-Hogan runoff will present an interesting choice for Democrats:

Do you vote for the opportunistic joke candidate who appears to be more interested in hawking his merch than actually winning, or the good-natured country boy who hasn’t done any campaigning?

Hogan’s keeping a positive attitude regardless.

“If you don’t win, no big deal, go home.”