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Hooks on Politics

Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick
Kelsey Jukam
Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick at the State of the State Address.

Ah, love triangles. Throughout history, they’ve provided rich dramatic material. But they’re no fun to be in, and almost as un-fun to be around. Bruised egos, miscommunication and ill will. Matters of the heart get so messy.

The Legislature is also premised on a three-way relationship, though, one hopes, platonic. There’s Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus. We know where they stand, roughly—Patrick’s a right-winger who goes with his gut, and Straus is a cautious and analytical moderate. Which of them will form a stronger relationship with the governor?

The answer to that question will say a lot about how the 84th Legislature unfolds. Who’s winning?

1) Dan Patrick has so much love to give, man.

There are many different ways to form a bond with a political partner, but Patrick’s is pretty curious. A few weeks ago, I wrote that the lite guv’s strategy for dealing with the governor appeared to be to “hug him to death and hope compliance follows,” but if anything I may have undersold it. Dan’s mash notes for Greg are getting stronger:

—At a Feb. 10 press conference on extending the National Guard border deployment, Patrick emphasized multiple times that he stood “shoulder to shoulder” with the governor. They were in close physical proximity to each other. So good so far, I guess. He was tamer in his words for Straus: “We stand shoulder to shoulder with the governor, and we will work with the speaker.”

—After the State of the State address on Feb. 17, Patrick reported that the two had achieved some sort of mind-meld. “I could have written that speech,” he told a reporter. In a statement, he said that Abbott said “everything I wanted to hear in the State of the State address.”

—Another week goes by, and the two have become even closer, perhaps dangerously so. On Feb. 24, Patrick holds a press conference to discuss his tax cut proposals. Is Abbott on board? “We’re so close shoulder-to-shoulder you couldn’t put a piece of paper between us.”

That’s abnormally close. Patrick and Abbott, apparently, have entered into a collapsing orbit like two doomed celestial bodies. At any moment—perhaps this has happened already—their masses will merge and become one. Has anyone seen Greg Abbott lately?

2) The one with the fear of commitment

The problem for Patrick is that the governor has shown no signs of reciprocating this love. There are even a few signs that he doesn’t particularly enjoy this level of affection.

When Patrick had that press conference on border security—the one where he emphasized over and over that the governor stood “shoulder to shoulder” with him—the press waited most of the day for a corroborating statement from Abbott’s office. But it didn’t come. This was strange. It fell to Straus to reply to Patrick’s event, which was attended by every member of the GOP Senate caucus. And Straus’ response was very, very cool.

The State of the State—the one Patrick says he could have written himself—contained only cursory plugs for Patrick’s policy agenda. He mentioned school choice, sure, but not in the way Patrick would have done. His plan for border security carefully marks the halfway point in between the House’s proposal and the Senate’s. And several of his emergency items come with a price tag, like his university research initiative, which could prove unpopular in the spending-averse Senate, especially since the senators have their own budget priorities.

Meanwhile Abbott and the Senate seem to be competing with each other to offer the biggest tax cut proposals: The original Senate budget included $4 billion in tax cuts; then, Abbott proposed $4.4 billion; and Patrick answered with $4.6 billion. If the tax cut proposals continue to grow at this rate, state government will have abolished itself by May.

Does Patrick’s Senate respect Abbott? We saw one test of that last week, when the Senate Committee on Nominations met to consider Abbott’s three appointments to the University of Texas System Board of Regents. Conservative activists like those associated with Midland oilman Tim Dunn hate Abbott’s nominees.

The hearing was the first public split between Abbott and legislators—Republican senators attempted to tear his nominees to pieces in a five-hour hearing so intense it fell to a Democrat, state Sen. José Rodríguez, to offer Abbott a few sympathetic words.

It may have been the first visible rift between Abbott and his right, but it won’t be the last. There are many issues on which the moderate, responsible governor that Abbott might like to be is at odds with the wingers in his party, Dan Patrick foremost among them.

Patrick’s predecessor David Dewhurst was weak, but desperate to look strong. He had less and less influence as his tenure in office went along, but he was always sure to make himself visible. Patrick, so far, is doing something approaching the opposite—in his series of policy press conferences, he’s been letting the chairs of the Senate committees take point on their issues, even when the bills they’re offering up are effectively his.

There’s been a lot of talk around Austin that Patrick might make a run for governor in 2018, either because Abbott doesn’t run for re-election or Patrick chooses to primary him. If that’s the game plan, it makes sense for Patrick to offer Abbott his loving support now. There’s no point in showing his ambition this far out—it’s a bad look. But if the divide keeps growing between the Senate right-wing, encouraged by enforcer groups that have always had pretty tame feelings for the guv, and Abbott—who could blame Patrick for that?

3) The strong, silent type

Straus isn’t just ideologically different from Patrick, he’s cognitively and emotionally different: He’s cool and analytical where Patrick is hot and passionate.

In this year’s speaker race, which Straus won easily, there was some speculation that Patrick’s arrival made House Republicans less willing to support a conservative challenger to Straus. Patrick was an unknown quantity, and a lot of Republicans in the Lege were skeptical. They wanted a speaker who would stand up for them and ignore the ideologues if Patrick’s Senate threatened rural schools, for example.

Is it possible Patrick’s leadership style will encourage Straus to be more vocal about his beliefs, too? When pressed on this question at a UT-Austin event recently, Straus was mostly mum. But his statement on Patrick’s border proposal was remarkably terse: “I appreciate Governor Patrick’s remarks, but Governor Abbott is the Commander in Chief and he will decide whether to extend the National Guard’s deployment.” That’s about as close as you get to seeing one politician tell an ostensible ally to go screw himself in an official statement.

On Monday, a key ally of House leadership, Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton), appeared alongside what appeared to be three to four dozen reps—including some Democrats—to talk up the House’s border plan. Bonnen laid out a collection of bills that would seek to bolster law enforcement abilities throughout the state while creating a permanent DPS presence along the border. That would allow the National Guard to be sent home quickly and preempt the need for future border “surges,” like the one Patrick wants to maintain.

Those “surges” have always been more about political need rather than practical need, so it’s hard to see how some more state troopers would prevent them. Still, the effort to rally so many representatives to stand alongside Bonnen was a strong visual match to Patrick’s press conference, when he attempted to use the whole Senate GOP caucus as leverage against both the governor and House.

And Patrick is not going out of his way to make himself beloved in Straustown. At a speech Patrick gave to a gathering of the Concerned Women for America, a Christian group, he gave a version of a spiel he’s given at at least two events recently. The gist: Finally, most of the state’s leadership are good Christians.

“I have never seen before in my eight years in the Texas Senate the presence of God in the Capitol like I’ve seen this year,” said Patrick. “Greg Abbott, myself, Comptroller Hegar, Ken Paxton, Sid Miller. I’ve participated in all their swearings-in and inauguration. And I can tell you that every one of them put God first.” They honored Jesus in all they did.

Omitted from Patrick’s list, of course, is Straus, who is Jewish. Those who follow Texas politics know the utility of these kinds of dog-whistles in talking to groups like CWA, though it might seem thin to others—the plausible deniability is precisely why they’re useful.

We’re only a month and a half through the session—this is supposed to be the easy part. And there’s already so much warm feeling! Only 90 days to go.

Robert Nichols
State Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) is playing a leading role in transportation funding overhauls this session.

The story of Texas government is, by and large, the story of robbing Peter to pay Paul, and then promising to pay Peter back with Polly or Pedro’s money. The Legislature finds it pretty easy to hack money out of the budget in hard times, but balks at restoring funding during flush times.

So, how to pay for urgent needs? In those good times, like now, the Legislature goes looking for Peter to shake down. Today’s hard choice comes in the form of Senate Bill 5 and Senate Joint Resolution 5, both authored by state Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville), the chair of the Senate Committee on Transportation. Both passed out of Nichols’ committee 8-1 today.

Nichols’ legislation would take about half of the taxes generated by the sale of motor vehicles and give it to the state highway fund. Normally this money goes into the general revenue fund, which is the giant pot of money the Legislature uses to pay for education, health care and almost anything else that state agencies do. (The highway fund would actually receive a little less than half at first—the tax generates about $4 billion a year, and his proposal would have the first $2.5 billion go to general revenue, the next $2.5 billion go to the highway fund, with both funds taking half of whatever comes after.)

The Texas Department of Transportation badly needs the money—the agency has estimated it requires $10 billion in additional funding each biennium just to handle the current level of congestion in the highway system. And, as Nichols said in his opening remarks, TxDOT needs to know the money will be there. “They need to have reasonable assurances six, eight, 10 years out how much money they’re going to count on, so they can begin the process for these big projects require,” Nichols said,

Nearly every legislator would like TxDOT to be made whole, if for no other reason than almost everyone uses the state’s transportation network—unlike, say, public schools and state health services. And an impressive coalition of movers and shakers has coalesced behind Nichols’ plan. On Wednesday, a press conference with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick also featured the kind of panel of besuited white businessmen that convene at the Capitol when something big is about to happen.

But there was also some discomfort at today’s committee hearing, from both the left and the right. State Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood) said that the new funding for TxDOT amounted to a drop in the bucket—he’d like to see more of the auto sales tax receipts go to road funding.

But others on the committee worried primarily about the opposite—the effect that pulling money from general revenue would have on the rest of the budget. State Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), in particular, asked how redirecting billions of dollars from the general revenue fund was complementary with the Legislature’s tax cut ambitions.

“If we take that out, how do we make it up? I know we say, it’s good not to raise taxes,” said Ellis. “How do we pay for this? It’s a very important concept, and something we do need to do. But I saw everybody yesterday feeling real good about giving some of our money back in property tax relief.”

He’d said he’d prefer that his personal property tax rebate be reinvested in infrastructure. “I guess my home might be worth a little bit more than the average cost of a home in my district, but I’d get my $180 and put it back into roads, to be honest with you,” Ellis said. “I’m just wondering how we do it all.”

Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick are hell-bent on passing tax cuts large enough that people notice—part of their compact with GOP primary voters. That’s what makes Nichols’ proposals difficult. If the state had plenty of money, connecting TxDOT to a steady revenue stream would be a no-brainer. But the Legislature’s current budget proposals are packed with spending items, and some of the tax cut proposals legislators are floating would restrict the ability of the state to take in revenue in the future.

In a recent editorial calling for the Legislature to fund real needs before cutting taxes, the San Antonio Express-News collected legislators’ competing budget promises and declared that “even a Ginsu knife might not be able to slice this budget fine enough.”

State Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay), no flaming liberal, voted for Nichols’ plan but said he was wary of tying the hands of future legislators, who might need the money for something else.

“I have a huge reservation about the dedication of funds and the lack of the Legislature’s discretionary ability,” says Fraser. Nichols’ SJR 5 would ask voters to enshrine the rerouting of the vehicle sales tax in the Texas Constitution, something that would be  difficult to undo. Fraser said he would “continue to explore whether it’s good public policy to dedicate” funds, he said. “But I’m going to vote for this bill to move this process along.”

Freshman state Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas) was having none of it. “We’ve had 30 years … to put money into highways and we haven’t done it,” he said. “The only way we’re going to make a forced savings plan is to put it in a constitutional amendment.”

That irked Fraser a bit. With “respect,” he told Huffines, “you’ve only been here about a month. Some of us have been here for a long time.” There’s a “learning curve of institutional knowledge” to be acquired. Huffines laughed amiably.

Transportation has been named one of the governor’s emergency items, meaning the Senate can take up Nichols’ plan immediately. On Wednesday, Patrick said he expected the Senate to pass the bills as early as next week.

Texas Family Values Rally
Kelsey Jukam
Jonathan Saenz of Texas Values, right, stares at a cardboard wedding cake celebrating Texas' ban on same-sex marriages at a Texas Faith and Freedom Day rally, Feb. 24, 2015.

Hellfire may be licking at Texans’ heels, but bitter cold forced the righteous inside today. For months, groups such as Texas Values and the Texas Eagle Forum had planned to convene for Texas Faith and Family Day and give a mighty rebuke to changing cultural norms on the south steps of the Capitol, a venue that can lend grandeur to even small rallies. Instead, they filled a little more than half of the 350-seat Capitol auditorium.

In Texas, the Christian right did quite well in the 2014 election, but, true to form, social conservatives feel more persecuted than ever. In one respect, their sky really is falling: The state ban on gay marriage looks ready to collapse. There was the one-off marriage of a Travis County couple last week, and there’s a widespread expectation that marriage equality is coming to Texas soon, thanks to either the 5th Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court.

But at the Capitol auditorium today, there was no talk about that elephant in the room. Perhaps that would have been too depressing for the crowd. Instead, like prisoners of war awaiting a dawn execution, event organizers talked about the past. The ringleader was Jonathan Saenz, the anti-gay marriage activist whose ex-wife left him for a woman.

Saenz, who has tirelessly fought against non-discrimination ordinances around the state and who is the most visible face of anti-gay-marriage activism, stood onstage next to two pink-and-white birthday cakes and a facsimile cardboard wedding cake marking the 10th anniversary of the approval—by roughly 13 percent of the state’s voters—of Texas’ constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Might as well celebrate now, because the ban will likely be dead by the actual anniversary of its passage in November 2005.

In some ways, it was still 2005 in the room. The Texas Eagle Forum’s Cathie Adams introduced state Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia), who opened with a joke. “I always take a picture of the audience,” he told the crowd, pulling out his phone, to prove to his wife that he is where he said he would be. After all, “it’s until death do us part, and it’s me she was talking about killing.” Traditional marriage, you see, is the bond between a man and his nagging wife.

Bell is the author of a bill that would bar government employees that help perform or recognize same-sex marriages from getting paid or receiving benefits—one of a number of weird last-ditch efforts to keep the gays at bay. Polls show Texans are more and more in favor of recognizing same-sex unions of some kind. But Bell had a rejoinder to that. “Public polls are conducted by people who want to skew public opinion one way or another,” he softly reassured the crowd.

The sanctity of marriage wasn’t the only subject on the day’s agenda. State Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth) rose to speak about his efforts to curb judicial bypass abortions. A slick lawyer could abduct your daughter on her way to school, he told attendees, and help her get an abortion without your knowledge.

It was, he said, the 179th anniversary of William Barret Travis’ famous last letter from the Alamo. Today’s culture wars are similar. “Either we win, or there’s going to be deaths,” Krause said of the fight to end legal abortion. “Victory or death,” he signed off.

Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano) rose to talk about his anti-Sharia law bill. Was the bill pointless demagoguery? “Read the news,” Leach told the crowd. The menace of Sharia law was becoming more pressing every day. “There’s no judge in Texas that should even think twice about violating the U.S. Constitution,” Leach said.

Quite a few legislators dropped by, but the disparity between representatives and senators who elected to make the walk to the auditorium speaks volumes about the differences between the two chambers. Among reps, Molly White and Scott Turner (he of the failed speaker bid) came by. But neither they nor any of the event’s other speakers hold much sway in the House—they hail from the party’s fringy side. But the senators who showed are influential, including Brian Birdwell, Charles Perry and Donna Campbell, who’s well on her way from freshman wacko-bird to senior stateswoman. (In a few more cycles, one assumes, she’ll be primaried as a RINO.)

Their leader was there as well, and Campbell introduced Dan Patrick to a standing ovation. “He is our leader, he is strong and he has the same values we do,” she said. “He’s known for his hard work ethic, and he’s a strong family man.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick
Kelsey Jukam
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick speaks to attendees of the Texas Faith and Family Day rally.

No marriage in Texas is as sacred as the marriage between Patrick and his podium, and he showed his great love for it to the crowd. Relaxed and happy, he spoke with the knowledge that he was among friends, though he mostly avoided any talk about issues. Instead, he spoke about his great love for the Bible and his conviction that his allies share that love. What a shame, he said, that he had to wait to find God’s word until he was middle-aged. He mentioned his modestly titled book about the Bible, The Second Most Important Book You’ll Ever Read, written years ago when he was but a mere talk show host.

“I don’t know if the end days are today, or a thousand years from now,” Patrick told the crowd. “That’s why we have to stand for Christ in all that we do.”

A pastor—one of the so-called Houston Five who’ve been involved in a fight with Houston mayor Annise Parker—delivered a closing prayer: “We declare this state to be the sovereign territory of Jesus Christ,” he said, eliciting “amens” from the crowd. It fell to Bell to cut the banniversary cake, with White and Birdwell at his side.

Earlier, Leach had treated the crowd to his favorite Woodrow Wilson quote: “It’s better to temporarily fail at a cause that will ultimately succeed,” he said, “than to temporarily succeed at a cause that will ultimately fail.” On gay-rights issues, the true believers at the Capitol today are convinced they’re doing the former. What will happen when they come to terms with the fact that it’s really been the latter?

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Here in the Patriotic People’s Republic of Kory (почему вы переводите это), things are actually looking up! True, it’s been a hard few weeks. Though our editorial staffers were forced to marry guns in a group ceremony yesterday, a court order won by our extremely competent Attorney General Ken Paxton annulled them (or at least that’s what we’re telling ourselves.)

1) We check in today on GREAT LEADER KORY, who’s developing a personality cult, as all great leaders should. The fear he’s put in the hearts of legislators has won him fans.

One Metroplex writer has been able to put Watkins’ role in the freedom movement in perspective. Read for yourself, on the website of Brett Sanders—the website’s logo renders the B in Brett as a Bitcoin—a feature-length treatment of Watkins: “Patriot Misunderstood, Kory Watkins a Rebel Without a Pause.” (sics throughout.)

There is a man who walks the line in Texas.

Go on…

A Freedom lover, Tarrant County Precinct chair, Radio Show host, Father, Brother, Husband, and Son. Kory Watkins who credits the discovery of Ron Paul for his awakening to the corruption and tyranny in government, and Paul’s strong stance for Freedom and Liberty.

Fair—Watkins is almost indisputably someone’s son. But haven’t a lot of his erstwhile allies denounced his tactics, like shouting at legislators that “treason is punishable by death?”

All the negativity thrown at Mr. Watkins about his choice of methods, have been simply petty and not very relevant. […] Why separate yourself from Samuel Adams and Thomas Jefferson type of Freedom Fighter?

Kory, the author says, is “fighting for the rights of not only himself but countless others. His aggressiveness and the utilization of his Freedoms to express and engage the battle to have our rights restored are trashed by many within the liberty movement.” This Thomas Jefferson look-a-like, in his period-appropriate MRA trilby, is a critical leader—the critical leader—of the state’s gun rights movement. “Just like a defense on any sports team needs an aggressor, an intimidator, one that goes head first into the melee.”

The bill that facilitates the installation of panic buttons in lege offices after Watkins stormed the office of state Rep. Poncho Nevárez was a #FalseFlag operation, says the author, “a pre determined plan” designed to discredit Kory. They’re scared of him because he’s effective.

“Kory is the modern day symbolism of ‘Don’t Tread on Me,’” Sanders writes. “We have been silent and nice for far to long.”

I’m sold. What will Watkins—son, husband, radio host, Thomas Jefferson, linebacker—do once he’s won his gun rights? Among other items, Watkins says he will fight to end “knife and sword regulations.”

Get excited, legislators. Come next session, these guys are going to be wandering around the capitol with broadswords.

Here’s a video of Kory Watkins rapping.

 

2) Ever since state Sen. Don Huffines won his primary bid last year, I’ve been preoccupied with the feeling that his face is familiar. Recently, with the help of the Observer’s photo-analytics team—unpaid interns we’ve pulled from Casis Elementary’s pre-trial diversion program—we’ve cracked it. Huffines bears a striking similarity to ’70s character actor Henry Gibson, of Nashville and The Blues Brothers fame:

Henry Gibson, in The Blues Brothers
Henry Gibson, in The Blues Brothers
Don Huffines, in the Senate
Don Huffines, in the Senate

Could it be a coincidence? Plausible. But eagle-eyed readers will note that “Don Huffines” and “Henry Gibson” share no fewer than seven letters between them, and the keener amongst you will be intrigued to know that Gibson “died” just six years before Huffines made his first bid for elected office. Peek into the dark recesses of this state, and ye know not what ye shall find.

Whatever his real name is, Huffines would like to wish “all the ladies out there” a “happy Valentime’s Day.”

3) Remember Rick Perry? He’s slowly fading from the state’s memory. We find ourselves bathing in the Eternal Sunshine of the Rickless Mind. He has a new video out this week about his great love for a great state. Sing our praises, guv!

“We’re in beautiful New Hampshire, the Granite State,” narrates Yankee Rick, probably slathered in infidel maple syrup and wearing a Patriots jersey. “Granite’s tough and durable, just like the people who live in this fiercely independent state,” Perry says as B-roll of him patting a veteran on the shoulder plays.

Man. Even if you were happy to see him go, it hurts when your one-time lover finds another, doesn’t it? Do all our memories mean nothing, Rick? Just… adios, mofo, like that? In two weeks he’ll be wearing L.L. Bean flannels and bitching about that recent nor’easter. But pancakes are no substitute for brisket, Perry. You’ll regret this. Loyalty, Rick, it used to mean something.

Perry is in New Hampshire because he’s running for president. How is that going? Well, Perry has an easier route to win the Republican nomination than some others, which is not to say that he’ll be successful. It’s actually only a two-step plan:

Step One: Patiently wait until J.E.B. is eaten alive by the Right, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul flame out spectacularly, Scott Walker’s weird fetishes surface and Marco Rubio’s face falls off during a live debate, revealing an intricately machined system of whirring gears.

Step Two: Don’t look like a dolt.

Step One is going OK, inasmuch as Perry is still in the race. Step Two? In New Hampshire, Perry produced a novel historical claim at a county GOP Lincoln-Reagan Day dinner. According to Perry, old Abe “Rebel Annihilator” Lincoln was, it turns out, a vociferous proponent of state’s rights:

“Abraham Lincoln read the Constitution, and he also read the Bill of Rights, and he got down to the Tenth Amendment, and he liked it. That Tenth Amendment that talks about these states, these laboratories of democracy. […] The Tenth Amendment that the federal government is limited, its powers are limited by the Constitution.”

As historian Josh Zeitz writes in Politico Magazine, GOPers have always had a hard time incorporating Lincoln into their political narratives. They like to boast that he was a Republican, but he was a Republican before the American party system inverted itself several times during the course of the last 150 years. Lincoln was a big-time federalist whose most important domestic policies were quintessentially big-government projects—he championed federal investment in education and became deeply concerned about the trajectory of American capitalism as the war came to a close. His biggest achievement, of course, did have a little something to do with state’s rights. In Perry’s imagining, perhaps we could call it “The War of Northern Aggression for a Limited and Devolved Government with No Handouts.”

The grotesque thing about this, of course, is that Perry flirted with secession as governor.

Here’s the Gettysburg Address, as reimagined by Perry. If you’re on his campaign team, feel free to use this:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new loose federal compact, conceived in joint appreciation for family values and corporate power, and dedicated to the proposition that the states, the laboratories of Democracy, know how to create jobs better than some bureaucrat in D.C., I tell you what.

Now we are engaged in a problematic period in which both sides are at fault, testing whether that loose federal compact, or any loose federal compact so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of this unfortunate mutual dispute. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that this nation may continue to create jobs long into the future.

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here to reduce the taxpayer’s burden. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion to the cause of limited government—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom from intrusive government mandates and burdensome federal regulation—and that government of the states, by the states, for the states, shall not perish from the earth.

Someday, a spiritual successor to me and my work will rise in a border state, with a handsome head of hair, and he will take the fight to tyranny just as I did. We’re Taxed Enough Already, people. It’s not a miracle, it’s a model. God bless America. Adios, mofos.

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Americans For Prosperity stands strong for new state Sen. José Menéndez

How did Republican mega-donors end up winning a race in which only Democrats were running?

This week’s sad installment in an ongoing saga—the Travails of Texas Democrats—involves a runoff in Senate District 26, which covers much of San Antonio, between two Democratic state reps, José Menéndez and Trey Martinez Fischer. Last night, Menéndez won Leticia Van de Putte’s former seat in the Senate after a bitter and partisan campaign in which much of his support against the liberal Martinez Fischer came from Republicans. It wasn’t exactly an upset, but it ran contrary to the expectations of some statewide observers. (Yours truly included.)

As political scientist Mark P. Jones outlines here, Menéndez was one of the most conservative Democrats in the House last session, and Martinez Fischer was one of the most liberal. Martinez Fischer, or TMF as he’s colloquially known, won almost 44 percent in a special election in early January. Menéndez took 25 percent.

From one angle, it looked like Menéndez had a path to victory. Two other Republican candidates in the five-way race together took almost 28 percent of the vote. If Menéndez could keep his voting base intact and add all of the Republican voters from the first round, he’d win.

But TMF was a formidable opponent. He was a rising star in the party—or at least, he’d appointed himself one. He’d become known in the House for his skill in using the lower chamber’s rules to kill bills. He’s vocal, tough and smart, and he has the ambition to match. He’s the chairman of the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus. He’s won plaudits and attention from the media.

TMF poured money into the Texas Democratic Party convention last summer, where he had an unusually high profile for a lowly state representative. His party, featuring the Austin-based Spazmatics, was one of the convention’s headlining events. He gave away loteria cards emblazoned with the faces of Texas politicos, which became popular items—the Abbott card depicted the governor with devil horns. And his speech to the convention was full of the kind of fire that makes Democrats feel competitive again, even if his more pointed barbs—he joked that “GOP” stood for gringos y otros pendejos—drew stern disapproval from some more polite observers, and later became a big focus of anti-TMF attack ads.

In his race, he was supported by all kinds of Democratic heavies. He had the financial support of Houston mega-donor Steve Mostyn’s network, the strong backing of San Antonio bigwigs like the Castro family, and the endorsement of his hometown paper, the San Antonio Express-News.

Menéndez, meanwhile, was a fine rep, but quiet. He served in the House for 14 years. He was on the corporate-minded, conservative wing of his party. He won a committee chairmanship from House Speaker Joe Straus. Last session, he authored bills to raise criminal penalties for petty crimes like graffiti, even though his colleagues, even some Republicans, were generally trying to do the opposite.

Leticia Van de Putte, who held the seat before she resigned to run for mayor of San Antonio, was no great liberal herself, but she regularly ran unopposed. This was a pretty Democratic district, so TMF, with his profile and money and support, would clench it, right? Austin journalists of all stripes were salivating at the notion of Martinez Fischer butting heads with Dan Patrick in the once-comatose Senate.

As it turns out, gringos y otros pendejos vote, and the Democratic base does not. TMF lost the early vote by 20 points, and stayed down all night, ultimately winning just under 41 percent of the vote. A whopping 6 percent of voters made it to the polls. Remarkably, not only did Menéndez expand his vote share to include (presumably) Republican voters, but TMF lost ground, slipping from 44 percent to 41 percent of the vote. In short, it was a drubbing.

Menéndez will probably be a fine senator, and his campaign team did a great job here. But it’s still a missed opportunity for Democrats. The tea party relentlessly primaries GOP senators in safe districts until they get the guys they want; they’ve succeeded in changing the face of the Legislature. Democrats have sometimes been successful at this. In 2013, Democrat Sylvia Garcia, backed by the same people who backed TMF, beat Carol Alvarado, a more conservative candidate who was backed by the same people who backed Menéndez, including Texans for Lawsuit Reform.

It’s probably safe to say to say that Menéndez won’t be the kind of fighter in the Senate that Democratic die-hards were hoping for. Menendez’s biggest donors include William Greehey, the CEO of Valero Energy, the irascible billionaire Red McCombs, and beer distributor John L. Nau. All have donated oceans of money to Republican candidates at the state and federal level. He was even effectively endorsed by the Texas branch of the Koch-funded Americans For Prosperity.

Meanwhile, Democratic base voters can’t seem to get out to the polls in non-presidential years unless someone is standing behind them with a cattle prod. Maybe they’ll try that next.

On Tuesday night, the state Democratic Party—and Battleground Texas—found themselves celebrating the election of a senator whose campaign was funded by Republicans and cheered by the political machine of the Koch brothers. Blue Texas is coming any day now.

Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick
Kelsey Jukam
Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick at the State of the State Address, February 17, 2015.

What kind of governor will Greg Abbott be? He ran a mostly policy-free campaign, save for an ad about how bad traffic is—though to be fair, his Democratic opponent was even worse on this front—and his inaugural speech was overwhelmed by both the pomp and circumstance of the occasion and the pomp and circumstance of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

Abbott’s State of the State speech, delivered today before a joint session of the Legislature, was his first real chance to establish the tone of his tenure in office. He positioned himself, generally, as a somewhat cautious moderate. He outlined a few broadly acceptable policy priorities, such as expanding early education programs and ethics reform. Otherwise, he mostly followed the path set by the Legislature.

“I’m proud to report that as the sun arises on 2015, the state of Texas is strong, and together we’re about to make it stronger,” Abbott told the Legislature. (Combine Abbott’s flourish with Patrick’s inaugural declaration, and we have a motto for the 84th Legislature: The sun arises on a new day in Texas.)

As with any governor, Abbott’s emergency items—he laid out five today—probably tell us a lot about his priorities. Legislation pertaining to emergency items can be considered early and generally receive special consideration by the Lege. Rick Perry—remember him?—frequently used these emergency item declarations as a way to throw red meat to the base.

But four of Abbott’s items are relatively bread-and-butter issues—Abbott calls for expanding pre-K, boosting funding for university research programs, raising transportation funding and strengthening state ethics laws.

The fifth is border security, the closest Abbott gets to a red-meat issue. But his budget anticipates an end to the National Guard mission to the border as soon as the Department of Public Safety can reasonably replace them. Patrick wants funding for the National Guard deployment to be continued through the next biennium, and strongly implied the governor agreed with him. Abbott does not, apparently, but he did call for border security funding to be doubled for the next biennium, for a total of $735 million—putting himself closer to the Senate budget than the House budget.

On school choice, another of Patrick’s core issues, Abbott didn’t have much to say. He called for the state to work toward becoming “No. 1 in education”—a line he’s used repeatedly that has all the substance of a boat made from cotton candy—and said he’d like to give school districts the right to exempt themselves from certain parts of the state’s education code. But while he advocated for more “choice”—”real local control rests with parents,” he said—there was no mention of vouchers or much else Patrick would like to see passed.

That didn’t stop Patrick from giving his blessing. In a statement, Patrick said Abbott’s speech contained “everything I wanted to hear in the State of the State address,” and underlined Abbott’s call for “additional border security” and “school choice.” Patrick’s strategy for dealing with Abbott appears to be to hug him to death and hope compliance follows—we’ll see how well that works.

There was plenty else in the speech besides the emergency items. Many of Abbott’s proposals include additional spending, but he also called for $4.2 billion in tax cuts. The two just might be able to coexist this year, with a healthy budget surplus, but Abbott says he’d like to make the tax cuts permanent. He also called for a constitutional amendment to limit spending increases to population growth plus inflation, a measure long touted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation that’s never gained much traction. On some of these budget issues, he’s closer to the right wing of his party than the middle—so far, the House hasn’t seemed especially excited about sweeping tax cuts.

He’s pushing for more support of the state’s community college system, and wants more funding to support the state’s veterans. He told the Legislature that it was “time to put school finance litigation behind us”—the same litigation he was aggressively prosecuting as attorney general—but he didn’t say much about how the state should do that.

He didn’t have much to say about guns, one of the hot issues at the Capitol right now, except for a line that pledged he would “expand liberty in Texas by signing a law that makes Texas the 45th state to allow open carry” of handguns. That wasn’t enough for one of the Legislature’s biggest proponents of open carry, state Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford), who told the Observer after the speech that open carry “should have been an emergency item,” and that he was skeptical of all the spending proposals in Abbott’s speech.

Greg Abbott
Kelsey Jukam
Greg Abbott at the State of the State Address.

We learned a bit more about the personal style of a governor who still, despite all of the theatrics last year, remains a bit cryptic. Twice, he deployed anecdotes about young girls to pull at legislators’ paternalistic heart strings: While talking about border security, he talked about meeting a “young Latina” in the Rio Grande Valley who “pleaded with me to keep my promise to secure the border.” She knew the children of cartel members, Abbott said, and they frightened her. And then there was Keisha Riley of Houston, whose young daughter wiped tears from her cheek as she asked Abbott for better schools.”

Abbott positioned himself today as a pragmatic and thoughtful problem-solver.

“Our fellow Texans face so many challenges: the need for better schools, more roads, border security, better healthcare, more jobs. They want more liberty and less government, and they deserve ethics reform,” Abbott said. “We can’t let their future be defined by these challenges.”

But the as-yet unwritten history of the 84th and 85th Legislatures, over which Abbott will preside, will be determined by factors and circumstances largely outside of his control. For a reminder of how that can manifest itself, look no further than Rick Perry’s first State of the State address, from January 2001.

Back then, with a handsome young face and an even more magnificent head of hair, Perry sounded almost like a Democrat. The state needed to make changes, Perry said: better schools, more roads, better health care, more jobs, better government. The poor residents of the border colonias, he said, needed better access to health care and the state needed to do more to eradicate infectious diseases among border communities. These challenges, Perry told the Legislature at the dawn of a bright new era, are “all worthy of our ever-vigilant effort.”

But for the next 14 years, the Legislature lurched from strained budget to strained budget. Perry found it more beneficial to move to the right, and an increasingly fractious Legislature started to look to the right too. The center couldn’t hold. Fourteen years after that speech, the problems Texas face are still more or less the same.

So although observers are going to point to Abbott staking out ground in the middle—and he is, on some issues—be careful of drawing too many conclusions about what that will ultimately mean. And enjoy the new day’s new dawn while it lasts.

Screen Shot 2015-02-12 at 12.00.34 AM
robertnicholsrecord.com

State Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) isn’t exactly a communist. Taciturn and serious, he’s represented his East Texas district since 2007. As head of the Senate Committee on Transportation, he’s pursued modest policy proposals and generally eschewed five-year plans. An analysis by Mark P. Jones of Rice University pegged Nichols as the sixth most conservative senator of the 83rd legislative session, with only tea partiers like Dan Patrick and Donna Campbell to his right. So, naturally, some people think he’s a pinko.

In the last few weeks, an attack site surfaced targeting Nichols. The senator, it turns out, is “one of the more liberal Republicans in Texas,” a tyrant’s friend who “has overseen unprecedented growth in government” and “has opposed conservatives for many years.” He’s empowered government bureaucrats and zealously protected shady slush funds.

It looks like the kind of site that’s employed in campaigns, but the campaign season is over. Nichols was unopposed in his primary race, and effectively unopposed in the general election, where he won more than 90 percent of the vote. The domain name—robertnicholsrecord.com—was bought on January 21, more than a week after the start of the session.

There’s nothing on the site to identify its author, and the information that might normally be used to identify the domain name’s owner has been scrubbed, leaving the site effectively anonymous. Nichols’ office says they don’t know for sure who is responsible.

But it seems likely that the site comes from the Tim Dunn/Michael Quinn Sullivan messaging network. There’s the emphasis on higher education policy. But more tellingly, there’s the invocation of a 2013 Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Texas Goes Sacramento,” which Dunn’s groups love.

And they have a motive to attack Nichols—he co-authored Senate Bill 346 last session, a bill that would require disclosure of so-called “dark money” expenditures. The bill, which easily passed both chambers but was vetoed by Gov. Perry, was widely understood to be targeting Michael Quinn Sullivan’s groups in particular.

Still, why? What use is the site to anyone?

That’s harder to determine, and it seems like a pretty poor use of Dunn’s money. It’s probably best understood as a shot across Nichols’ bow, coming as it does at the start of a session in which Nichols, through his leadership of Senate Transportation, will have an outsized footprint on policy. But hardly anyone has seen it. It stayed off social media altogether until it was tweeted out by Dwayne Stovall, last year’s hapless primary challenger to John Cornyn, last weekend.

Movement conservatives had an amazing amount of success at launching primary challengers to Senate Republicans they deemed too moderate last cycle. For one, they knocked off incumbent Bob Deuell and replaced him with Bob Hall, a guy with a troubled past who’s been wandering around the Capitol the last few weeks talking about the United Nations, EMPs, and “the War of Northern Aggression.” But the campaign to subvert Nichols is another thing altogether—it’s actually kind of surreal. If he’s a liberal, who’s left?

“If the person or organization that created this website would like to identify themselves, we would be happy to sit down and discuss the issues and concerns they have,” Nichols told the Observer in a statement. “I stand by my record of representing East Texas values and do not hide from it. That’s unlike the people or organization who created this website, who can’t even put their name on it, because they know they are distorting the truth and trying to mislead my constituents.”

If creating anonymous attack sites to bully legislators who are your allies on most issues and hiding your identity while doing it sounds like a slightly seedy way to do politics, remember that Sullivan’s Empower Texans decided to use a song about a stalker and sexual predator to characterize their legislative agenda this cycle:

Gun-rights advocates rally at the Alamo.
Jen Reel
Gun-rights advocates rally at the Alamo.

Two major gun bills got their first real test today, as a Senate committee heard testimony from more than 100 people on the wisdom of Senate Bill 11, which would allow holders of concealed handgun licenses to pack heat on college campuses, and Senate Bill 17, which would allow CHL holders to carry handguns openly in public. The bills passed out of the committee on a 7-2 vote, along party lines.

Gun rights legislation has been at the center of one of the weirdest circuses of the session so far. Bad behavior on the part of open carry advocates and a misstep by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick put the future of open carry in doubt, but the Senate set the legislation on a fast path to passage, hoping to reassure angry activists that have demanded nothing less than unconditional surrender from anyone who deviates from the party line. A significant portion of today’s debate focused on campus carry, even though it’s open carry that has seized most of the headlines recently. Both seem assured to eventually pass the Senate.

The chair of the Senate Committee on State Affairs, state Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), seemed eager to get the two bills out of her committee—it’s unusual to vote on a bill on the day of its first hearing, but that’s what happened.

Was that because Huffman loved the bills, or because she wanted to wash her hands of them? Either way, the bills can’t be considered on the floor until the 60th day of the session—which falls on March 13—unless Gov. Greg Abbott declares the gun bills an emergency priority. So there’s not a clear reason for the rush.

Introducing his bill, state Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) concentrated his fire on critics of campus carry. Adopting a blustery style that one observer compared to a Cormac McCarthy character, Birdwell was a font of quotes: “I’d rather be tried by 12 than carried by six,” he told Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, who was against Birdwell’s bill. When UT System Chancellor William H. McRaven’s position on campus carry was mentioned—he’s a former special operations commander who has strongly opposed guns on UT campuses—Birdwell said that once McRaven was given his marching orders from the Lege, “I expect the chancellor to salute and move out.”

When state Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-San Antonio), one of only two Democrats on the nine-member committee, spoke about the risk of having loaded guns on college campuses, Birdwell tersely replied: “I’ve found unloaded weapons very un-useful, ma’am.” When Zaffirini asked why Birdwell’s bill wouldn’t let universities opt out of the gun law, Birdwell responded that college administrators didn’t have the right to meddle in the “rights that are granted from God,” which fall to the Legislature to protect.

Anti-gun groups, according to emails they released on social media, were told by Birdwell’s staff that there would be no invited testimony at the hearing. But there was, and it came exclusively from pro-gun groups (most notably from the NRA’s top regional lobbyist). That’s happened before—groups that don’t support expanding gun rights are almost never given equal footing with those that do at the Lege.

University chancellors like former state Sen. Robert Duncan, now the chancellor of the Texas Tech System, were allotted only brief comment periods, or had their comments read aloud. Duncan, in his characteristic style, stayed neutral on the bill, but suggested a few amendments for safety’s sake, like banning guns in medical clinics.

A letter from McRaven, read aloud, stressed that many mental health officials who work with college students are very uneasy about the prospect of more guns on campus: Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for college students, and easier access to guns on campus might make suicide even more common. John Sharp, Texas A&M’s chancellor, said he could not “speak to the effect that campus carry will have on other institutions, but it does not raise safety concerns for me.” But he emphasized that campus carry wasn’t an A&M priority.

Many came to spoke against campus carry, including a survivor of the Virginia Tech massacre, Colin Goddard, who asked legislators not to use the incident to justify the bill. And there were several survivors of the 1966 UT Tower shooting, including Ruth Heide Claire James, formerly Claire Wilson, who began her testimony with a jarring declaration: “I was the first one shot in the Whitman massacre.”

Wilson was 18 when the shooting happened, and pregnant, and Whitman killed her unborn child and 18-year-old boyfriend. She lay bleeding in view of the Tower for some 90 minutes until she was rescued. Today, she said that gunfire from well-meaning civilians, causing confusion, was one of the reasons she wasn’t rescued earlier.

State Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown), also had a connection to the shooting—his father, he said, had been carrying a scoped rifle that day, and police had instructed him to fire at Whitman.

Today’s hearing also covered what state Sen. Craig Estes jokingly called “a less controversial bill,” SB 17. Estes, the bill’s author, called on Texas “to boldly go where 46 other states have already gone” and pass a law authorizing the open carry of handguns.

But he didn’t say all that much about the bill, leaving it to the public to argue for and against it. Open carry activists want what they call “constitutional carry,” meaning that any member of the public could carry a gun in public without a license. Estes’ bill falls short of that, and they don’t like it.

Angela Rabke of Moms Demand Action, a gun-control group founded after the Sandy Hook massacre, talked about the harassment her group has received from open carry activists; in the overflow room, some of the activists laughed at her. Shortly after she began discussing the “near-constant threats of sexual violence” she’d had to contend with, her time ran out.

Next to her sat Kory Watkins, the leader of Open Carry Tarrant County, who has gotten into his fair share of trouble lately. If he failed to win the right to carry a handgun, and if the Legislature chose “to go against my God-given rights,” he said, “I will continue to walk around with an AK-47.” And he would “walk around until my feet bleed to make sure you’re never an elected official again,” he told the panel.

There were quite a few other sideshow moments. One man compared gun licenses to the yellow stars Jews had to wear in Nazi Germany.

But most witnesses on both sides were respectful and earnest. In the past, gun hearings like this have been overwhelmingly populated by gun rights activists. This time, the balance was closer to even. Those who oppose expanding gun rights are starting to turn out in more serious numbers.

Will that matter at the Lege? Probably not for now: The bills discussed today are on a trajectory to easy passage, at least in the Senate, even if they may have to wait over a month. But public pressure could be meaningful as the weeks go on and the rest of the Legislature considers making changes.

State Rep. Paul Workman (R-Austin) speaks at a Wednesday press conference.
Christopher Hooks
State Rep. Paul Workman (R-Austin) speaks at a Wednesday press conference.

The Speaker’s Committee Room just outside the House chamber is an unlikely gathering place for plotters and revolutionaries, men who would change the trajectory of the Republic, but there they were.

Led by state Rep. Paul Workman (R-Austin), six legislators gathered yesterday to announce their push to amend the U.S. Constitution to add conservative reform measures like a balanced budget requirement, hopping on the bandwagon of a national movement that hopes to work through state legislatures and force the issue nationally.

“I’d like to begin today with the words of Thomas Jefferson,” said Workman, “one of our Founding Fathers, who said in 1798 that, quote, ‘I wish it were possible to obtain a single amendment to our Constitution. I mean an article taking from the federal government the power of borrowing.’ Jefferson knew that borrowing money would only lead to the demise of the nation.”

(Unlike most of the Founding Fathers quotes you hear these days, this one is mostly accurate—though Jefferson got over his earlier aversion to borrowing during his presidency in time to make the Louisiana Purchase, for which Texans should be glad, and came to accept the utility of government debt later in his life.)

“Here we are, 217 years later, and our nation has an insatiable appetite for government largesse,” said Workman. Something had to be done. So he and his buddies, among whom stood GOP state Reps. James White of Tyler, Dan Flynn of Canton, Phil King of Weatherford and Rick Miller of Sugar Land, were calling for a constitutional convention by way of Article V, a constitutional provision that allows three-fourths of the states to force Congress to order one.

“We are now a hundred years into congressional bad behavior, which has systematically and purposefully stripped the states of their sovereignty, and it’s going on as we speak,” said Workman. He and his allies want amendments that would require a balanced federal budget, impose restrictions on spending and impose term limits on Congress.

Workman’s House Joint Resolutions 78 and 79 propose spending limits. Miller has House Joint Resolution 77, which seeks spending and term limits, and wants to “limit the jurisdiction” of the federal government. King’s House Bill 1110 would lay out the procedure for selecting delegates to the convention. White’s House Bill 1109 takes a different approach: He’d have Texas enter into an interstate compact calling for a balanced budget amendment.

King, the chair of the Select Committee on State & Federal Power & Responsibility, said the proposals would be heard in his fiefdom two weeks hence. A representative from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) would come to educate legislators on constitutional procedures.

Pity our state’s Republican legislators: Congressmen find it much easier to grandstand, close as they are to the devil himself, B.H.O. But there aren’t many Democrats worth throwing punches at around Austin, so some reps try to work over the president too. But it’s harder to do from 1,300 miles away.

It’s not entirely a gimmick—there have been plenty of Article V attempts in American history. Texas has used the approach 12 times—among them, to attempt to ban school bussing in 1973. And it’s not coming out of nowhere—an Austin-based organization, Citizens for Self-Governance, is encouraging state legislators to push for constitutional changes through their Convention of States project, which recently brought former Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn on board as a senior adviser.

Seven states have passed an Article V appeal for a balanced budget amendment since 2012, and the group says it has support from legislators in 33 states. They need support from 34 to force Congress to call a constitutional convention. Last summer, the group had a summit in Indiana to discuss the group’s 2015 agenda—Workman was there.

Convention of States isn’t the only group going the Article V route—there’s also Wolf PAC, on the left, making a bid to end corporate personhood. There’s a sense in the air that the mechanisms of American governance aren’t working, and some, like Workman and friends, are looking to structural solutions. They have a long road ahead of them.

Why Dan Patrick Wants a Permanent Border ‘Surge’

The lieutenant governor's rhetoric on the border is shifting, and it could mean a split with House Speaker Joe Straus.
Dan Patrick's fence-shaped "Secure our Border" signs were ubiquitous at the state GOP convention last year.
Christopher Hooks
Dan Patrick's fence-shaped "Secure our Border" signs were ubiquitous at the state GOP convention last year.

Update: House Speaker Joe Straus released a statement that coolly responds to Patrick’s presser and seems to imply there’s more distance between Abbott and Patrick than the latter would like:

“I appreciate Governor Patrick’s remarks, but Governor Abbott is the Commander in Chief and he will decide whether to extend the National Guard’s deployment.”

Original: At a press conference today, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick pledged to continue the National Guard deployment for as long as it took to “secure the border.” Flanked by members of the Senate Republican Caucus, Patrick spoke for just six minutes, and took no questions.

The deployment of 1,000 National Guard troops last summer was originally intended to be a temporary response to the influx of Central American minors, and the Legislature only arranged funding through the end of March. But Patrick wants to make them a permanent feature of the state’s border security regimen—his plan would continue funding for the Guard presence through 2017.

His high-profile push for the border security funding could be an attempt to win positive headlines even as the legislative priorities he laid out in his primary campaign—like ending the Texas DREAM Act and doing something about so-called “sanctuary cities”—seem to have vanished from his legislative agenda, at least for the moment. And it could be a way to prepare for a fight with House Speaker Joe Straus, whose caucus would seem to be less eager about the National Guard deployment than Patrick’s senators.

Patrick said the National Guard deployment had been effective in slowing border traffic. According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, apprehensions of people crossing the border is down by about two-thirds in the Rio Grande Valley Sector—a small but active stretch of South Texas—since the border surge started, though that’s a bit like saying that a river is dry because it is only running a third as high as it did when it experienced its greatest flood in modern history.

In fact, the tapering off of the surge of unaccompanied minors is more suitably attributed to a variety of other factors. (Patrick’s predecessor David Dewhurst had tried to take credit for the drop as well.)

But for Patrick, the crisis goes on.

“However, as the director of the Department of Public Safety said in a report, the border is still not secure,” Patrick said today. “And we know it’s not secure because the federal government is shirking from their responsibilities of doing so.”

So Texas would continue to take charge. “Because of their success, now is not the time to remove the National Guard from the border,” Patrick said.

Patrick explained he would work with the governor and speaker to commit the $12 million needed to keep the National Guard on the border from the end of March through the end of May, at which time the Legislature should have a supplemental funding bill in place to cover the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends in August.

Meanwhile, the Senate budget proposal includes $815 million for border security efforts for the 2016-2017 biennium. Patrick boasted that the proposed funding was the “highest level in history.” The House budget proposal kept border funding flat, at less than half of the Senate proposal.

Patrick told the press his sources told him that drug cartels are ramping up for a National Guard withdrawal, and predicted that another “spring and summer surge” of migrants, like the one last year, was imminent. Doing anything less than his plan would be hopelessly careless. He struck a defiant tone.

“The Republican Senators standing behind me of the Texas Senate are united and committed to doing everything possible to keep Texas and America safe from terrorists who many believe have already crossed the border,” Patrick said. “From drug cartels to the criminal gangs who bring crime to our state.”

Patrick got elected in large part through his fierce and fiery border rhetoric. It was his core issue, one he hammered ad nauseum at every tea party meeting and rally he attended in the state. His style—he described illegal immigration as an “invasion,” and had warned in the past of immigrants spreading third-world diseases such as leprosy and tuberculosis—seemed capable of getting him in serious trouble, but Democrats were never able to tie him down on it.

Since he’s gotten elected, though, he’s taken a different tack. In the past, he’s told crowds that repealing the Texas DREAM act, which allows undocumented Texas residents who graduated from state high schools to pay in-state tuition at state colleges, would be one of his top legislative priorities, but it vanished from his rhetoric once he took the gavel, and no serious effort has yet materialized to do away with it.

Senator Dan Patrick and DPS Director Steve McCraw pose with a message for border-crossers in Mission, Texas.
Senator Dan Patrick and DPS Director Steve McCraw pose with a message for border-crossers in Mission, Texas.

Emphasizing the National Guard deployment is a way to deliver red meat to his border-fearing constituents without having to take serious political risks, or push an agenda that’s doomed to fail in the House or by way of the governor’s veto pen. It mirrors his attempt to feed gun-rights activists a consolation prize by emphasizing his support for campus carry, instead of open carry bills.

It also foreshadows what will become one of the major story-lines this session: Disputes between Straus’ House and Patrick’s Senate. In December, Straus was part of a legislative troika, which alsoincluded former Gov. Rick Perry and former Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, which kept funding for a DPS presence at the border through August but ended funding for the guard deployment in March.

“I did not have a say in that decision, nor did Gov. Abbott,” Patrick emphasized.

He repeated over and over that he stood in perfect unity with the governor’s office, but didn’t have much to say about Straus.

“I’ve spoken to Gov. Abbott on multiple occasions and we stand shoulder to shoulder in a commitment to border security. The governor and the Senate will have a comprehensive border security plan that we’re committed to passing this legislative session,” Patrick said.

The governor’s office and his senate, Patrick seemed to be saying, were like the two unified parents of a wayward child.

“The Senate stands behind [Abbott] and I stand behind him,” Patrick said again. “We stand shoulder to shoulder with the governor, and we will work with the speaker.” The senators behind Patrick applauded as he hurried out of the room.

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