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Forrest for the Trees

Speedy Roo, the mascot of the payday loan lender Speedy Cash, in an Austin advertisement.
Jen Reel
Speedy Roo, the mascot of the payday loan lender Speedy Cash, in an Austin advertisement. Staff photo.

In a rebuke to the do-nothing Texas Legislature, Houston took a step toward becoming the fifth major Texas city to pass payday and auto-title loan restrictions. Houston Mayor Annise Parker outlined her proposal last week and announced that she wouldn’t dilute the proposed ordinance based on industry demands.

“I had initially favored a Houston-specific measure, but decided that joining with other Texas cities in a united front on this issue is the best way to send a strong message to the Texas Legislature,” she said.

In a city that often rolls over for big business, Parker took a surprisingly strong stand against the Texas payday loan industry, which did more than $1 billion in business in the Houston metro area in 2012 alone. According to the Houston Chronicle:

She brushed aside concerns about inviting a lawsuit, saying the city is sued daily, and did not finesse her message to the industry.

“They have said they will move outside the city limits of Houston, and I say: Don’t let the door hit you on the way out,” Parker said. “This is not about making a reasonable profit. This is about preying on vulnerable human beings and making an obscene profit.”

The proposed Houston ordinance is similar to those passed in Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Houston and San Antonio. Of Texas’ six largest cities, only Fort Worth still lacks any regulations on payday and auto-title lending. Because the Legislature has repeatedly failed to impose anything more than cursory limits on the industry, the movement to curb usurious and predatory practices has fallen to municipalities, a role that many are embracing.

The city ordinances don’t cap rates, which frequently exceed 500 percent APR. Instead the laws are designed to help break the “cycle of debt” many consumers fall into, digging themselves deeper into debt by “rolling over” rip-off loans and paying more and more in fees while failing to pay down the principal.

The Houston measure, if passed, would cap the size of a payday loan to 20 percent of a borrower’s gross monthly income. Auto-title loans couldn’t exceed 3 percent of a borrower’s income or 70 percent of the vehicle’s value. Borrowers would be limited to three rollovers, or refinances, in the case of single-payment loans (shorter-term loans that are typically due in one lump sum by the borrower’s next payday). Multiple-installment loans, a growing segment of the market and one potentially more dangerous than “traditional” payday loans,” would be to no more than four payments. An earlier draft of the ordinance had much weaker provisions. The City Council could take up the measure as soon as December 11.

The payday loan industry has fiercely opposed city regulations in Texas. Cash America, one of the biggest chains, announced in a conference call with analysts in October that it would be closing all 28 of its “standalone” payday shops in Texas by the end of the year, citing “a disruption … created by the prohibitive local ordinances.”

“It’s a really big statement,” said Ann Baddour of Texas Appleseed, an Austin-based social justice organization that has been one of the statewide leaders on reform. “Houston is the biggest city in Texas. It has the highest number of payday and auto-title stores. … Having five of the six largest cities standing together saying the same thing, I think that’s a pretty powerful voice.”

Wayne Christian
Wayne Christian

WTF Friday will be on hiatus next week for the Thanksgiving holiday, so let us take today to give thanks. We are thankful for the entertainment provided by our friends in politics. Thank you, Rick Perry, for insisting on wearing those MSNBC glasses to make yourself look smarter, a fashion accessory that makes as much sense on you as Ben Roethlisberger donning an ascot. Thank you, Ted Cruz, for being a world-historical elitist at Harvard and pissing off what seems to be the entire class of ’95 who are now gladly providing fodder for endless unflattering Ted’s College Days reminiscences.

Thank you to the State Board of Education, for re-litigating the Scopes Monkey Trial for the 3,062nd time.

Thank you, David Dewhurst, for so shamelessly trying to be someone you’re not, for trying everything to impress the tea party short of donning a tri-corner hat and stapling tea bags to area telephone poles. And thank you for reaching new levels of hyperbole in your latest TV ad, proving your hatred for Barack Obama, alien species that he is, incapable of sharing any human feeling with Republicans.

“With all due respect to President Obama, I can’t think of one thing that I agree with him on.”

Thank you Young Conservatives of Texas at UT-Austin for your decade-long obsession with offensive stunts: affirmative action bake sales, straight-pride parades and the (swiftly canceled) illegal immigrant hunt, which I’m sure sounded like a great idea over beers at Mellow Mushroom. As the group explained on its Facebook page.

“Any UT student who catches one of these ‘illegal immigrants’ and brings them back to our table will receive a $25 gift card. The purpose of this event is to spark a campus-wide discussion about the issue of illegal immigration, and how it affects our everyday lives.”

Thank you, finally, for the second coming of Wayne Christian. He’s a former state representative who’s still referring to himself as “the only Christian on the ballot.” His highlight reel includes trying to exempt himself from the Open Beaches Act and defending legislation banning LGBT centers at universities by explaining that he’d been “racially discriminated against” as a white guy on the high school basketball team. Now, he’s running for Texas Railroad Commission to protect our precious lignites from the oppressor in the White House, as he told the Waco Tea Party [54:10]. Obama, of course, has been so tough on the oil industry that the U.S. is on track to surpass Saudi Arabia in production and the night sky in the South Texas brush country is lit up by flares burning off natural gas.

(By the way, the number of nonsensical statements by Christian in that interview is staggering, including his assertion that he stopped 1,000 abortions a year funded by the taxpayers. Needless to say, I hope, Texas taxpayers do not pay for abortions.)

“[Turn] Texas blue is partially being fought by taking over our oil and gas industry by a president who’s openly said he’s against fracking, who’s against pipelines.”

An artist rendering depicts a new Chevron tower (left).
An artist's rendering of the Chevron office tower

In June, Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Speaker of the House Joe Straus announced that Chevron—one of the world’s largest and most profitable corporations—would be handed a $12 million grant from the state of Texas for building an office tower in downtown Houston. As we wrote at the time, the Chevron subsidy was a perfect example of the problems with the Texas Enterprise Fund and forced the question of whether the company would’ve created the estimated 1,752 jobs anyway. After all, Chevron had telegraphed plans for the office tower site as early as 2008. It had already planned to relocate some employees from San Ramon, California, where the company is headquartered.

At the time, Texas Monthly‘s Paul Burka called for the Texas Enterprise Fund to be scrapped and labeled the Chevron grant “a total waste of public money.”

Regardless of whether the Chevron subsidy is a deal-closing, job-creating incentive or a corporate giveaway, you have to wonder what Chevron—with $240 billion in revenue last year—would do with the $12 million. What were the taxpayers paying for?

Well, now we know. Through state open records law, the Observer obtained a copy of Chevron’s application to the Texas Enterprise Fund. A “project summary” prepared by SumIt Credits, a Louisiana firm working on Chevron’ behalf, asserts that “these incentives are very valuable to Chevron and would help cover project costs as well as employee relocation costs.” Chevron/SumIt specifically lists “costs associated with the relocation of employees,” including all home-selling costs, a week off for house hunting, an expense allowance for as much as $15,0000, travel costs and a bonus.

The application also contains scant justification for the big “but-for” question: Would Chevron have created the jobs in Houston without incentives? “A few business segments already decided to relocate to Houston,” the project summary states. “Chevron continues to evaluate the most competitive organizational structure, including the evaluation of the status quo against the possibility of job relocations.”

So, there you have it. Texas taxpayers are helping to pay for Chevron’s employees moving costs. Welcome to Texas!


Here is the full text from the relevant section of the project summary.

Competitive Siting: The U.S. will become the world’s top producer of oil within five years according to a recent report from the International Energy Agency. Chevron will be a big part of this and anticipates significant new jobs over the next 8 years. Chevron is analyzing its options to address its needs and remain competitive in the marketplace. In doing so, Chevron is contemplating the construction of a new facility in Houston, and many factors come into play in maturing this investment decision. Completion of this project would allow Chevron to proactively manage and house the 2,000 – 2,500 estimated new jobs to be created, or relocated, to its Houston urban campus. A final investment decision for construction of this proposed new building is anticipated to occur in the 2nd Quarter of 2014.

A few business segments in San Ramon have already decided to relocate to Houston. Chevron continues to evaluate the most competitive organizational structure, including the evaluation of the status quo against the possibility of job relocations. Many factors come into play in this evaluation including, available & quality of space, economics, costs ramifications and job relocation costs. The costs associated with the relocation of employees include the following, which can be significant:

l. Payment of all normal & customary home selling costs (e.g. 6% Real Estate Commission, Loan costs, etc…)
2. Misc expense allowance equal to 1.5 times one month’s salary (capped at $15,000)
3. Week off for house hunting
4. Interim Living up to 30 days
5. Cost of two trips to and from location
6. Company will provide a guaranteed offer
7 . Bonus of up lo 2% if home sells before guaranteed offer

Any incentives provided for jobs would help mitigate these costs and assist with other costs factored in as each business unit reviews its employee location needs.

A man kayaks in the wetlands of Matagorda Bay Nature Park at sunset.
A man kayaks in the wetlands of Matagorda Bay Nature Park at sunset.

The mood was grim among folks from Bay City, Eagle Lake and other coastal communities today as the Lower Colorado River Authority board voted 8-7 in favor of an emergency proposal that will likely cut off water to rice farmers for the third year in a row.

Unless the Highland Lakes contain 1.1 million acre-feet by March 1—roughly half full—most rice farmers will receive no water in 2014. That’s an unlikely scenario. Currently the lakes contain about 728,000 acre-feet and are 36 percent full. We’d need a very wet winter to make up the difference.

As a consolation, LCRA also proposed new mandatory restrictions on lawn watering, limiting outdoor watering to no more than one day per week for its customers. The LCRA’s emergency drought plan now goes to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for approval.

Although the contentious day-long discussion was often dominated by the usual mind-numbing talk of acre-feet, senior rights, certifications of adjudication and interruptible flows, the familiar dynamic of upper basin vs. lower basin, lawns vs. agriculture, Austin vs. the rice farmers, urban vs. rural, was unmistakable.

“This will be our tsunami,” said Mary Parr, the mayor of Eagle Lake. Parr said her town of 3,800, where rice farming dates to the 1890s, is already reeling from two years of receiving no water from the Highland Lakes to irrigate crops. Rice-related enterprises in her area are reporting a 20 to 60 percent reduction in business, according to an informal survey she conducted. One of the two banks in town has closed and the other has laid off staff. The John Deere dealership has packed it in.

Parr told me she delivers a far more optimistic message at home (“we will make it through this”) but felt obligated to let Austin decision-makers know how dire things were becoming.

“God gives us dominion over fish and birds but it appears LCRA has dominion over our rural economy in the lower basin,” said Mitch Thames, president of the Bay City Chamber of Commerce. Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, a Brenham Republican who later stormed out of the board room after a vote to postpone the decision was defeated, said LCRA’s emergency meeting today came as a surprise to her and that people in her community hadn’t been consulted—a theme repeated over and over again.

But Austinites, the LCRA staff and many board members said the gravity of the drought and the uncertainty over how long it will last necessitate emergency action. The amount of water flowing into lakes Travis and Buchanan—known as “inflows” in water parlance—was the lowest ever in 2011, the fifth-lowest in 2012 and in 2013 is on track to be the second-lowest. “That’s never happened before,” said Greg Meszaros, director of the Austin Water Utility. “It’s never even come close to happening before.”

Until the Halloween “rain bomb,” the lakes were perilously close to hitting an all-time low of 600,000 acre-feet. That would’ve triggered a declaration of “a drought worse than the drought of record” and a round of mandatory cutbacks. Crossing that talismanic threshold has an obvious psychological resonance and regional authorities and politicians seem eager to avoid it, or at least put it off.

The odds of dropping below 600,000 acre-feet of storage would be 1 in 4, staff said, if the LCRA stuck with its current plan.

Even the status quo is unfavorable to downstream farmers. In 2012 and 2013, LCRA established “emergency triggers” of 850,000 acre-feet. The lakes were below that level both years and most rice farmers received nothing. Some are talking about the lakes never recovering.

“This will become permanent and be a death blow to the rice industry,” said Steve Balas, a board member from Eagle Lake. “We’re not going to get to [850,000 acre-feet] anyway.”

Austin and Highland Lake interests pointed to the other half of the proposal passed today: mandatory restrictions on lawn-watering to once per week for all of LCRA’s customers. Environmentalists praised the stepped-up conservation mandate but argued that suspending “interruptible” customers (read: rice farmers) could be devastating for the ecology of Matagorda Bay. Because much of the water used to flood rice fields eventually ends up in the bay—providing an influx of freshwater essential to the health of bays and estuaries—environmentalists, wildlife groups, fishermen and duck hunters have urged conservation before choking off releases from the Highland Lakes. Just two months ago, the LCRA board considered suspending all environmental flows for 2013, a proposal that was scuttled only after torrential rainfall below the Highland Lakes in October.

Still, Matagorda Bay is presently in a long-term survival mode, with just enough water trickling in to provide a small safe zone for fish and other marine life at the mouth of the Colorado River. For 2014, LCRA is only obligated to provide about 6,000 acre-feet of water, a paltry amount, said Jennifer Walker of the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club. For context, 6,000 acre-feet is a little less than 4 percent of the freshwater inflows scientists believe is the bare minimum required for maintaining a refuge area in Matagorda Bay.

If rainfall is scarce downstream of Austin and the rice farmers are cut off, she said, “We have a chance of it being much worse than this year.”

Justin Lookadoo
Justin Lookadoo

1) I am not so old that I’ve forgotten the motivational speakers and sex ed experts our Central Texas high school would bring in to educate, or miseducate, us, usually employing a combination of scare tactics, tortured metaphors (“you can only unwrap a gift once”) and props (e.g. Velcro gloves that riiiiiiiip apart to demonstrate the heartbreak of pre-marital sex). Anyway, it’s not news that there is a whole lucrative circuit of clownish abstinence-only experts. But, boy, does this Justin Lookadoo fellow take the cake. Looking a bit like a frosted porcupine, Lookadoo is a former East Texas probation officer turned Christian motivational speaker who runs a site called R U Dateable. (Take the quiz here!)

Amazingly it’s taken a decade for him to attract much critical notice but credit to the students at Richardson High School who ripped him on social media after doing some Google-research—something the school administrators either didn’t do, or worse did and were undeterred, when they invited him to speak this week. A small sampling of the Lookadoo oeuvre.

“Somewhere between the modern church and the feminist movement, guys turned into pansies. Stand up and be a man! Do something with your life!”

“Be mysterious. Dateable girls know how to shut up.”

And if you take a looksie into the Lookadoo archives you find this gem from a 2003 Washington Times profile:

“I watch [teens], study them and live with them. Plus I read ‘Cosmo Girl’ and ‘YM’ – everything teen girls read. Guys don’t read, so I watch what they watch.”

2) Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas), who makes Louie Gohmert look like a statesman, spent much of Wednesday playing Mad Libs with the lackluster Obamacare rollout. My favorite:

3) Finally, one guess who this is. Hint: He’s a WTF Friday fan favorite, a politician who rails against “elites.”

“We hadn’t left Manhattan before he asked my IQ. When I told him I didn’t know, he asked, ‘Well, what’s your SAT score? That’s closely coordinated with your IQ.’  It went from, ‘Nice guy’ to ‘uh-oh.’ ”

Dead catfish at San Angelo's OC Fisher Reservoir
Jen Reel

Updated below with data from National Weather Service

Folks in Wichita Falls don’t need a reminder that the Great Texas Drought is far from over.

The city of Wichita Falls on Tuesday officially announced unprecedented Stage 4 drought restrictions that ban almost all outdoor watering, ratchet up surcharges for over-consumption and prohibit golf courses from watering with city water, among other rules. The North Texas city joins a list of towns that have run into serious water shortages, including Robert Lee, Spicewood Beach and Barnhart

The new restrictions were triggered when the city’s two drinking-water lakes—Lake Arrowhead and Lake Kickapoo—fell to a combined 30 percent capacity. The lakes, like most reservoirs west of Interstate 35, have been in steady decline for years as drought’s handmaidens—heat, evaporation and heavy municipal demand—take their toll. Both are at historic lows and it doesn’t appear that the water restrictions so far have arrested the withering-away of the lakes.

lake kickapoo


Lake Arrowhead

At a press conference this morning, city officials were blunt in their assessment.

“Make no mistake, this is a crisis,” [City Manager Darron Leiker] said, then reinforcing weather conditions that led to the current drought stage. “It’s really nothing short of a natural disaster we’re dealing with.”

While rains the past few months have given much of Texas some relief, Wichita Falls is in a pocket of extreme conditions—the latest victim in a three-year drought that’s morphed and shifted around the state like lichen, here growing stronger, there slackening but persisting nonetheless.

Drought map of Texas, Nov. 2013
US Drought Monitor
Drought map of Texas, Nov. 2013

“The city of Wichita Falls would typically see 28 days of 100-degree temperatures. In 2011, we saw 100 days over 100 degrees,” he said. “Think about that for a minute. That’s over three months of over 100 degrees.”

The director added that the city received just 13 inches of rain in 2011, less than half of the average rainfall of more than 28 inches. He said 2012 and 2013 have had similar results — above normal temperatures and below normal rainfall — and the result is the severe drought that has decimated the region.

Victor Murphy, climate service program manager at the National Weather Service, says 2011-2012 was the warmest consecutive two-year stretch on record for Wichita Falls and the driest two-year stretch. Going into 2013, the area had a 22-inch rainfall deficit. That combination was the “1-2 punch to the gut that floored the Wichita Falls area,” Murphy said.

And while 2013 has been somewhat kinder—temperatures have been near normal—Wichita Falls is running a seven-inch rainfall deficit for the year, bringing the total gap in precipitation over the past three years to an unbelievable 29 inches, about the amount Wichita Falls gets in a whole year.

Of course, climate change has nothing to do with any of this.

Louie Gohmert

President Obama was in Texas this week—Dallas, to be specific—defending Obamacare and encouraging Gov. Rick Perry to accept the basically-free Medicaid expansion deal that would save thousands of lives.

Texas Republicans used the opportunity to blast not just the rocky roll-out of the exchange website, but the whole idea of providing health care. Uncle Louie Gohmert, who I trust will be making regular WTF Friday appearances, naturally took things the furthest. Politicians are always accusing the press of “taking things out of context,” but in this instance Gohmert looks better out of context.

1) “When you know how dramatically people are adversely affected, do you want to let people suffer and potentially die, or do you do everything you can to try to put it off?”—U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas)

You’d almost think he was talking about the need for government intervention in the healthcare marketplace to avoid needless suffering and death. In fact, he was explaining why the House GOP thought it was worth shutting down the government and bringing the economy to the brink of disaster in a vain attempt to derail Obamacare.

The remainder of our WTF Friday quotes seem to point to a theme: creative policymaking.

Down at the Texas Supreme Court, tweetin’ maniac Justice Don Willett staked out a compassionate GOP position on LGBT rights. The court is considering whether same-sex couples, who legally married in another state, should be allowed to get divorced in Texas despite the state’s ban on gay marriage.

2) “It would seem to many that divorce would further the state’s public policy and not undermine the state’s public policy.”-@JusticeWillett

Logic: Gay marriage, bad. Straight marriage, good. Straight divorce, bad. Gay divorce, good.

Meanwhile, in the family values department, chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission, author of If Jesus Were an Investment Banker and apparent Quiverfull movement sympathizer Barry Smitherman settled on his anti-poverty plan:

3)  “First get an education, then get a job, then get married, then have children – and you will not live at the poverty level.”—Barry Smitherman

Finally, we end with (who else?) Pastor Rafael Cruz—father of Ted, hero to millions. Pater Cruz took his Sunday school class on the road, speaking to a gun group in Oklahoma and producing enough WTF fodder to last WTF Friday for two weeks at least. But this is the gem that really stands out, policy-making according to the Old Testament God.

4) “You know, the Bible is so clear. Go to Genesis chapter nine and you will find the death penalty clearly stated in Genesis chapter nine … God ordains the death penalty!”—Rafael Cruz

In Genesis 9:4, God also admonishes Noah, who lived to 950 according to Genesis 9:28, to “not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it.” I hope the Cruzes don’t like their steak raw.

Texas Drought
Erik A. Ellison/ Wikimedia Commons
Texas drought

Texas voters on Tuesday continued their streak, since 1985, of approving big-ticket water funding at the polls. Prop 6, despite 11th hour opposition from some tea party groups and environmentalists, passed handily. At 9:55 p.m. the measure had a healthy 73 percent in favor, with 68 percent of the precincts reporting—a wider margin of victory than I think most prognosticators expected.

The Texas Water Development Board will now oversee a $2 billion water bank, seeded with capital from the Rainy Day Fund, to help pay for water supply projects and water conservation across the state. The large margin of victory is testimony to the growing public awareness of the state’s serious water problems. (And so much for those silly predictions that “the rain” would dampen enthusiasm at the polls.)

Boosters, including many of the industrial interests that have the most to lose from water scarcity, did a good job positioning Prop 6 as the solution. The message was basically, “Want to do something about our water problems? Here’s the solution. Got a better idea?”

I did notice that a few rural East Texas counties posted large margins against Prop 6. Of course, that’s where the water is and the people aren’t. It’s not unreasonable for East Texans to worry that a multi-billion-dollar water bank will fund projects to move water from east to west. Indeed, they need only look at Dallas’ official plans. In Red River County, where the long-contested Marvin Nichols Reservoir is proposed, the vote on Prop 6 was 57 percent opposed to 43 percent in favor.

Gov. Rick Perry hailed Prop 6’s passage. “Today, the people of Texas made history, ensuring we’ll have the water we need to grow and thrive for the next five decades, without raising state taxes.”

Most large environmental groups supported Prop 6, in large part because of a target that at least 20 percent of the funding from the state water bank will go toward conservation and water reuse projects. Ken Kramer, the former director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, was instrumental in lining up the conservation earmark and was one of the most persuasive voices in favor of Prop 6. He celebrated the victory tonight but sounded a note of caution too.

“Now the real work begins,” Kramer said in a statement. “Texans need to become actively involved in regional water planning and in local government water supply decisions to make sure that the potential for Prop 6 to advance water conservation and enhance water planning is achieved.”

The only projects that will get funded from the state water bank will be those prioritized by regional water planning groups, which are loose amalgamations of “stakeholders.” There was so much uncertainty around the level of interest in funding conservation that lawmakers had to get creative in the way they worded the 20 percent provision, settling on the decidedly awkward phrasing of “shall undertake to apply not less than.”

There are other questions around the state water bank. Will it turn into another slush fund for Perry (or Greg Abbott or Wendy Davis) cronies? This is a state in which funding for cancer research was politicized and mishandled to a degree that spawned an active criminal investigation. This is a state where no one bats an eye when the governor’s Texas Enterprise Fund hands $12 million to one of the world’s most profitable oil companies to build an office tower it had already planned to build.

If the Texas Water Development Board’s calculations are to be believed, the $2 billion in capital from the Rainy Day Fund will be enough, through the miracles of public finance, to fund $27 billion in water projects over the next few decades. Will the money be used prudently, or will it be squandered? Ultimately the voters will decide. It’s largely out of the voters’ hands now.

A United Nations flag looms large over the Alamo
Daniel Schwen and Makaristos via Wikimedia, and Patrick Michels
The seventh, and final, flag over Texas

I read somewhere recently that the conservative movement right now is having its own version of the 1960s (minus the sex, drugs and good music, of course). Every lark, every wild idea, every compulsion and every impulse is having its moment in the sun. The fringe has not so much moved to the Republican center as swallowed it whole.

If it feels good, do it. Bring down the government, burn your Obamacare cards, turn on, tune in, drop out. If they call you crazy, then you must be doing something right. If you can think of something, it must be true. Don’t trust anyone under 55. Obama’s a Kenyan. Obamacare is the worst thing since slavery. Agenda 21, CSCOPE, Benghazi—and if you don’t believe it, you’re part of the problem, man.

That brings us to this week’s WTF Friday, where we learn that Hans Blix, Boutrous Boutrous-Ghali and a phalanx of blue-helmeted U.N. troops are going to do what Santa Anna could not and permanently occupy The Alamo. We learn that Ted Cruz’s closest advisor, his father Rafael Cruz, thinks Obama hails from the Serengeti. We check in with Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas), the “nuttiest” freshman in the very nutty U.S. House of Representatives. And more!

1) “It is ironic that while many Texans across the state talk about the dangers of the UN’s Agenda 21, the Alamo, the very symbol of Texas liberty and freedom, may fall under U.N. influence.”
—George Rodriguez, president of the San Antonio Tea Party, warning of a UN plot to take over the Alamo

2)  “Horse hockey.”
—Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, responding to “Internet gossip.” Notably, one of the purveyors of the U.N./Alamo plot was Alex Jones, with whom Patterson shared a stage during a gun rally at … the Alamo just two weeks ago.

3) “So I’ll tell you, we have our work cut out for us. We need to send Barack Obama back to Chicago. I’d like to send him back to Kenya.”
—Rafael Cruz, father of Texas’ junior U.S. senator, speaking to a Hood County tea party group. Video of the speech surfaced this week in a Mother Jones story.

4) “Abortion is against women’s rights and what women are called to be, which are wives and mothers.”
—Father Will Combs, pastor of St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church, speaking to the San Antonio Express-News outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in San Antonio on Thursday. Combs was celebrating an appeals court decision on Texas’ harsh new abortion law, which has already lead to at least nine clinics across the state halting abortion services, according to the Texas Tribune.

5) “Remember the guy that shot up and murdered American soldiers in San Antonio? The president said, ‘We can’t call him a terrorist.’ Who’d he call a terrorist? John Boehner, a working-class guy from Ohio, who’s pretty much a moderate who cries.”
—Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas), speaking last Friday on Kevin Price’s talk show in Houston. We think he was referring to the Nidal Hasan shooting at Fort Hood in 2009. We think.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott
Patrick Michels
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announces his run for governor in San Antonio, July 14, 2013.

On Monday, Greg Abbott, who has been very light on the policy proposals so far, finally unveiled some Big Ideas at a campaign stop in Brownsville. In a sign that Abbott, like Rick Perry, is willing to borrow budgeting ideas from the libertarian fringe, he proposed a suite of changes to the fundamentals of state budgeting that would effectively put Texas in a permanent state of austerity and dramatically expand the governor’s budgeting authority. None of the ideas is new, exactly—and few, I think, have a chance of going anywhere.

Texas Monthly‘s Paul Burka, in blasting the proposal, probably spoke for a lot of people who were hoping Abbott would back away from some of Perry’s excesses: “The only solace one can take in Abbott’s vision for the future of the state is that it resolves the question of whether he would be better or worse than Rick Perry. Astonishing as it may seem, I think he is worse than Perry.”

Let that sink in: Worse than Perry.

Billed as “A Working Plan for Texans,” Abbott’s proposal is basically a list of proposed constitutional amendments he’d like the Legislature to put before voters. So, the Legislature would have to willingly give away some of its power and then voters would have to be convinced to sign off. That’s a long shot, at least where things stand now.

One of his amendments to the state constitution would link state spending to population growth and inflation. Currently, the Texas Constitution ties spending to personal income, a more generous limit because the state’s economy tends to grow faster than population plus inflation.

Another would impose restrictions on the use of the state’s Rainy Day Fund, a multi-billion-dollar fund that’s become the object of a perpetual legislative tug-of-war.

Abbott would also like to grant himself more power to line-item veto budgetary items. In addition, he would end so-called budgetary diversions—the practice of collecting taxes or fees intended for a specific purpose—e.g. the tax on sporting goods that’s supposed to pay for parks and wildlife—but instead holding the money in order to balance the budget. It’s the sort-of green-eye-shade alchemy that drives both left and right nuts, but could, under the strictures of the Abbott plan, lead to deep cuts to core services (read: public schools and health and human services).

The idea of tying spending to inflation and population growth is not a new one. It’s been popular among elements of the right for years. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, uber-activist Michael Quinn Sullivan and even Perry have flogged the proposal for years. But it’s never gone anywhere for two main reasons—one, there is little appetite in the Texas Legislature for tying their own hands; two, it’s a bad idea.

Texas is already a (relatively) low tax, minimal services, small government state. Indeed, as Nate Blakeslee pointed out in a January Texas Monthly profile of Sullivan, state spending as a share of both the state’s gross domestic product and personal income has been trending downward for two decades. For personal income, which is what the Comptroller uses to set a spending limit, the share of spending has decreased from around 5.2 percent in the early ’90s to just over 4 percent today. Even using the population-plus-inflation spending limit, Texas’ budget has stayed under that limit for the last decade, according to an analysis by the Legislative Budget Board.

In other words, there’s just not a spending problem in Texas. Which is not the same thing as saying there’s an inequity problem when it comes to how revenues are collected (not having a state income tax, for example, means the poor and middle class take it on the nose with regressive sales and property taxes).

Still, tying the state’s budget to inflation and population growth could further constrain state government. You could pretty much forget about ever investing more in public schools, higher education or infrastructure, at least during non-flush times.

In April, the Legislative Budget Board crunched the numbers. The growth in personal income used to set the spending cap for 2014-2015 was 10.71 percent. In other words, the state could spend almost 11 percent more than it had the previous biennium. Using population growth plus inflation instead would limit spending growth to 6.82 percent. That would mean $2.7 billion less for state leaders to work with. That’s not a huge number given that the 2014-2015 state budget includes $95 billion in general revenue. But lowering the spending limit now would have a compounding effect over time.

That’s probably the point—force future generations to subscribe to the current model of low-ish taxes and minimal services. Abbott more or less admitted as much during a press confab after his Brownsville speech.

“By imposing these standards by constitutional provision it means that for generations there will be limits in the growth of spending in this state,” he said, according to the Associated Press.

However, the Legislature has shown little appetite for any of the proposals Abbott is touting. A bill tying the spending limit to population-plus-inflation is filed every session… and goes nowhere.

“I think that even the conservative Legislature of the past few cycles has come face-to-face with the reality that they need to spend money on our physical infrastructure and our human infrastructure too,” said Dick Lavine, with the liberal Center for Public Policy Priorities. “They understand that we’re scraping along the bottom as it is.”

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