Ken Paxton, after being sworn in, stands among Texas GOP VIP's: From left to right, Governor-elect Greg Abbott, Senator Ted Cruz, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Justice Don Willett, and Governor Rick Perry.
Is this the beginning of the end for Attorney General Ken Paxton? Today’s confirmation by Dallas local news station WFAA that a grand jury was meeting at the Collin County Courthouse to hear evidence related to Paxton’s alleged violations of securities law marks a milestone in his legal troubles. The development has been anticipated by Paxton-watchers for nearly a year and a half, ever since Paxton admitted in writing to violating the state securities code by failing to disclose that he was being paid to route his legal clients into the hands of an investment manager with a troubled track record.
It’s unclear whether this was the first day the jury heard the Paxton case, or how long they’ll continue to meet. But the stakes are high for Paxton. Special prosecutors Brian Wice and Kent Schaffer recently won an order expanding their case from already-disclosed improprieties to a first-degree felony case. That means the amount of money involved exceeds $100,000, and it makes the episode that Paxton already disclosed look like peanuts.
There’s been a good deal of speculation among Paxton-watchers about what the expanded case could entail, and today, we got a clue.
William Mapp, the disgraced founder of Servergy, Inc., was identified at the courthouse by WFAA reporter Tanya Eiserer. Servergy, based in McKinney, claimed to produce energy-efficient servers for corporate clients. The company made extraordinary claims about its core product, the Cleantech-1000, claiming it consumed “80% less power, cooling, and space in comparison to other servers currently available.” But there was a problem: The federal Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) alleges that Servergy’s claims about its product were false. And the company, the SEC says, produced fraudulent pre-orders from tech companies like Amazon and Freescale to sell itself to investors.
Servergy raised some $26 million from selling stock between 2009 and 2013, as detailed by information released by the SEC. And it profited from grants from the McKinney Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), a local fund that reinvests money collected by local sales taxes. Servergy continued to receive money from MEDC even after a formal SEC investigation began in 2013. Servergy is also connected to a wide variety of other improprieties and shady activities.
Paxton was a prominent Servergy shareholder, owning at least 10,000 shares. But while other investors simply lost their shirts, Paxton’s role in the Servergy case has generated lingering interest from authorities. In 2014, Paxton’s name was included in a list of search terms used by the SEC to subpoena the company, along with several other prominent figures in McKinney. Mapp’s presence at the courthouse today suggests that Servergy’s case is connected to evidence special prosecutors are presenting against Paxton.
That would be a significant escalation in the case against the state’s AG. A large part of the public defense laid out by Paxton’s spokesman Anthony Holm revolves around the assertion that Paxton’s original violation of securities law, regarding his legal clients, was a simple mistake and civil matter that he corrected when it was brought to his attention. The Servergy episode is a whole different kettle of fish, and while it remains to be seen what the prosecutors have against Paxton in connection to this particular episode, it should be a source of significant concern in the AG’s office.
Event organizer Jerry Maston, senior pastor of Eastland County's River of Life Church, addresses the crowd in between speakers, in front of an array of revolutionary war props.
On Friday, at the second annual Christian Values Summit, some 200 evangelicals met in the Granbury Resort Conference Center to consider America’s precipitous moral decline. Could the nation be saved? As jet-skiers paraded on Lake Granbury just outside the conference room, the little congregation sat in soporific air conditioning to get a sense of what needed to be done. An army of speakers appeared one by one on stage to deliver a message: Things could be all right again. Like Tinkerbell, the light of the American project was growing dim before our eyes, but it could still be revived. All you have to do is believe.
Evangelicals hold a lot of sway in American politics, but they’re not an interest group simply seeking to protect their interests. Theirs is a totalizing vision for government and society, one that can never be fully realized. Evangelicals have won some significant battles in the political arena over the years, but they’re bitterly aware that the half-century since the social revolutions of the 1960s has pushed them farther away from the kind of world they seek.
The men and women who spoke at the Friday rally didn’t sugarcoat that. At the summit — free to attend for the faithful, though closed to the press — they could speak openly and forthrightly about the movement’s enemies, foreign and domestic. But they also sought to convince their audience it wasn’t too late to turn things around, with the aid of slogans, inspirational stories, lectures and merchandise.
There was Doug Jeffrey, a former Air Force pilot who began his lecture with a slide of a yellow sky in West Texas. “Is the sun rising or setting?” the slideshow asked, followed by photos of veterans with smiling children. Jeffrey talked about flying a transport plane with the remains of American soldiers back from Baghdad. That’s the best of America, he said. “Then you have this joke,” he says, forwarding his slideshow to a Department of Defense-sanctioned poster, emblazoned with a rainbow, promoting the military’s Pride Month 2015. During his last tour of duty, the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy had been repealed, he said, and his superiors began including “LGBT facts” in emails. It angered him to no end.
Did not Isaiah 54:17 tell us that “no weapon formed against” the Lord “shall prosper”? asked Jeffrey. Our own heathenry prevents us from waging righteous war against our adversaries, he suggested. Jeffrey shocked the crowd by revealing the existence of a Wiccan Circle at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Perhaps the sun was setting after all. Oscars-style hurry-up music ushered Jeffrey off the stage before the question could be adequately resolved.
And there was Bob McEwen, a former congressman from Ohio who lost his seat after it came out that he’d bounced 166 checks from a government-run bank. He now travels the country extolling fiscal conservatism.
“Only two people can take money from you,” he told the crowd: a criminal and a tax collector. The effect, he said, “is the same.” The more money taken from you, the more of a slave you are. The more money you have, the more freedom you have. “Greater freedom equals greater wealth, and greater government equals greater poverty,” he said. “It only works this way.” Having explained why Sweden is awash in human misery and Somalia a paradise, he moved on to more concrete examples.
“This is what Nagasaki looked like at the end of World War II,” he said, pointing to a picture of the devastation left by Fat Man. “Then they were taught by the American people that freedom is better. This is Nagasaki today,” he said, pointing again to a picture of waterfront skyscrapers. Many in the crowd murmured approvingly.
Any political ideology or sentiment that valued a group over the individual came straight from the mouth of the Father of Lies. Why did the American Revolution succeed while its Gallic equivalent failed, for example? “What was the theme of the French Revolution? Liberty, equality, fraternity,” he said. “What’s another name for fraternity? Group. What’s another name for group? Soviet. What’s another name for Soviet? Union.”
Dorothy Burton, an African-American woman from Dallas, told the crowd about the “seven mountains of society,” the commanding heights of business, politics, media, etc., that the godly needed to occupy to take back the country. “We have ungodly people making decisions for godly people and expecting us to be satisfied,” she said. She gently told the crowd that “Barack Hussein Obama” was not a Muslim —“don’t throw shoes at me, now,” she said. He was worse: He was a congregationalist. Liberal Christianity is as much of an enemy, she said, as the unbelievers are.
She played a video produced by the United Church of Christ, the denomination to which Obama belongs, extolling the church’s tradition of social activism. Congregationalists had opposed slavery and apartheid, provided social services for freed blacks and the poor, and supported rights for women, ethnic minorities, the disabled and gay people. “The UCC is running this country,” Burton said, to a scattering of dismayed noises in the audience. The congregationalists are a major source of the permissive and collectivist poison running through America’s veins, Barton sought to impress upon the crowd.
After Burton came Dexter Sanders, a young African-American preacher from Orlando, who slowly brought the older crowd up to his shouty energy level. With his hip “Back 2 God” movement, he aimed to speak to America’s youth, he told his audience. America had made some mistakes, he said, but God had blessed this nation.
“Yeah, we got a little bit off track with that slavery thing, didn’t we?” he said. “But as soon as we got off track a little bit God put us back on track, didn’t he? Let’s clap for that.” Then he segued to the main part of his lecture, a discussion of Cleon Skousen’s 1958 book The Naked Communist. (Nobody speaks to the millennial heart better than Skousen, the flinty John Birch Society stalwart and Mormon conspiracy theorist who taught that slavery was a “blessing” and rose to prominence again a few years ago thanks to Glenn Beck.)
There was a bevy of other speakers. Houston pastor Dr. Lawrence White gave an extended sermon about the similarities between modern America and Weimar Germany, positing that the nation’s acceptance of legal abortion makes “Hitler look like a humanitarian.” Another speaker suggested that the soil problems of the National Mall were a God-sent plague, foretold in Psalms. Another recalled the story of a much-needed rainstorm that let loose its load over Texas the day Gov. Perry signed a package of abortion restrictions in 2013.
But nobody at the Granbury summit could hold a candle to Oklahoma state Rep. Dan Fisher, author of the two-volume Bringing Back the Black Robed Regiment. As he was introduced, the lights were dimmed. A scene from The Patriot, a 2000 Mel Gibson movie about the American Revolution, began to play. In the clip, Heath Ledger barges into a church service, asking for volunteers to fight the British. He’s rebuked by the pastor at first, but a passionate speech from Ledger’s love interest convinces the men, who one by one stand to take arms.
As the music swells—and the pastor decides to join the fight too—Fisher starts to walk down the conference hall’s middle aisle, with a musket slung over his shoulder, wearing heavy, period-appropriate church robes. The movie clip ends, and the spotlight hits Fisher on stage. He is Peter Muhlenberg, a hero of the revolution and Lutheran clergyman. He has traveled through time to be in Granbury—he makes asides that express his astonishment at things “in your time”—to tell us of the preachers who fought the British, and to urge us to fight for righteousness in 2015.
As Muhlenberg/Fisher speaks of his decision to take up arms, he casts aside his pastor’s robes. Underneath is the uniform of a Revolutionary War colonel. Now he speaks of those who gave their life to the cause of fighting the British, and of those who enjoyed post-war glory. He speaks of pastors who wore pistols during their sermons, for fear of assassins—and he shows us the pistols. He discards this uniform too, and underneath is the dress of an 18th-century civilian. He is aflame with passion. If God’s representatives on earth could give their lives for the spirit of 1776, couldn’t their descendents “just stand up?”
It’s as unusual a display as you will see at a political rally, but it raises the question: What exactly do the speakers want from this crowd? They want them to vote, sure, but the people who took time to come to this conference surely vote already. Channeling the state’s mournful Democrats, the Christian right leaders tell their base everything would be different if 100 percent of evangelicals voted. But how could these people be louder? More vocal? In 1776, there was a war to fight at home, and the enemy was easily identifiable. Anyone who’s seen a Hollywood movie knows the villains are always the ones with the British accents. It’s easy to understand why Fisher loves live action role-playing as Pastor Muhlenberg: Wouldn’t it be lovely to know your destiny, and what is to be done, and then to win?
But now, in 2015, external and internal enemies abound, and few can be dispatched with lethal violence. The Devil’s even knocking on little Granbury’s door, in the form of “transvestic behavior.” Everything is messier. Americans are more ethnically and spiritually diverse than ever before, and the government arguably accountable to more of its citizens than ever before. The old pathways to success for the Christian right may be blocked. In Granbury, the speakers had little to offer in the way of solutions.
Before the righteous were ushered back into the disintegrating world, Jerry Maston, the Eastland County preacher who organized the event, urged the crowd to scan the tables of merchandise. “There is a lot of product that we want to get into your hands,” he said. Buy something to “help support the ministry.”
Evangelicals will play an outsized role in next year’s presidential GOP primary, where many candidates are angling for the evangelical vote. They’ll remain a bedrock of Republican politics. But as the country continues to edge cautiously toward secularism and tolerance, and as many young Republicans tilt in a more libertarian direction on social issues, it’s tempting to declare: For y’all, the sun is setting.
Rep. Giovanni Capriglione (R-Southlake) speaking on the House floor.
Many Texans are not nuts, and don’t have much interaction with the state’s many honorable nuts in day-to-day life. So when the words “Jade Helm” became a buzzword in Texas back in May thanks in part to Gov. Greg Abbott, a lot of people were shocked. It was a moment in which people who don’t pay much attention to politics noticed that there was something a little sickly about the state’s political culture.
But the sensuous interplay between the truly fringe and the actually powerful is a constant in Texas, and it has a real impact on the policies the state implements even if it doesn’t usually burst into the public consciousness. Take the interview state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione (R-Southlake) did with radio host Rick Wiles on Friday, in which Capriglione basked in praise for his plan to destroy the Federal Reserve with precious metals, as if he were Auric Goldfinger. It’s the latest installment in a long-running love affair powerful state figures have with marginal economic theories.
Wiles, a Christian talk show host with an apocalypse fetish, runs Trunews, which he unironically describes as an “anti-newscast.” Wiles recently earned recognition for announcing that he was renouncing his American citizenship thanks to the country’s embrace of “lewdness, sorcery, witchcraft and rebellion” against God’s laws. He highlights “ancient prophecies,” cooks them together with an easy-bake oven version of Christian teachings, and cribs from Alex Jones. He foreshadows the imminent end of the world, then begs for donations.
Capriglione, meanwhile, is a rising member of the Republican establishment. He’s also a goldbug whose main accomplishment after two terms is the passage of a bill creating a Texas gold depository, which would allow gold owned by the University of Texas’ endowment fund to be returned from the heathen land, New York City. In 2013, it was one of the most colorfully ludicrous ideas before the Legislature, and Capriglione was reduced to passing out chocolate gold coins on the floor of the House to try to win support.
But this year, it passed the House and Senate with huge margins, and was granted a high-profile signing ceremony by Abbott. The proposal has won a good deal of press attention, mostly in the “news of the weird” category. But on Wiles’ show, Capriglione said the press had missed the point, interested only in what he called the “Die Hard 3 aspect.” His ambitions were much grander.
Wiles introduced Capriglione as “the man who spearheaded the Texas gold repatriation program,” a friend and ally. (As some have noted, repatriation, used commonly to describe Capriglione’s proposal, is a term used to refer to the return of something from a foreign country to its country of origin.) Capriglione’s outlook—a nation and world on the precipice—neatly complement Wiles’ own, and the two men grew more and more excited as they talked to each other.
Capriglione says his interest in Texas gold started in 2008, with the global financial crisis. “It really kind of brought to bear the idea that we need some kind of Plan B,” he said, in case the Federal Reserve System and U.S. dollar collapsed. Texas needed to have its own economic survival bunker in the form of gold.
In 2008, that was a fairly common inclination on the right. Figures such as Glenn Beck hawked gold on their shows to elderly and panicked viewers. But more serious people joined in: Some conservatives feared that the Federal Reserve’s policies under President Obama would incinerate the value of the dollar and lead the country to hyperinflation. They were, in retrospect, hilariously, massively wrong.
The board of the University of Texas Investment Management Company (UTIMCO), which invests the university’s endowment, were likewise concerned. UTIMCO invested some 5 percent of the endowment into actual gold bullion, which would hold value during the coming economic end times. UTIMCO pays to store the bars, tellingly, not at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, but at a much more expensive facility, an HSBC branch in midtown Manhattan.
It was a suboptimal investment, as Brian Murphy explores in a recent article on Texas officials gold fetish. Over the last five years, the New York Stock Exchange has risen almost 80 percent—but the price of gold has remained essentially flat. UTIMCO remains saddled with some $660 million of the stuff. Capriglione’s depository would allow the return of the gold to Texas, and make it the cornerstone of a new state-owned bank, where other individuals, companies, states, and even countries could store their own gold, too.
But Capriglione’s bank would be more than just a giant safety deposit box. “The really interesting part about this depository, which hasn’t been getting a lot of press,” he told Wiles, is that “with this depository, private individuals and entities will be able to purchase goods, and will be able to use assets in the vault the same way you’d be able to use cash.” They’d be able to conduct transactions backed by the gold stored in the bank, circumventing the Fed, Capriglione said.
Wiles marvels at Capriglione’s genius. “I think this is bigger than maybe you realize,” Wiles said. “I think you’re going to be overwhelmed by the response.” Capriglione replies: “I think so too.” He marvels at the ease with which his proposal became state policy this year: He seems incredulous the press hasn’t paid proper attention to what he accomplished.
Wiles asks: “Is there any possibility there could be a Texas-style Bitcoin?” Capriglione gets even more excited. “OK! That would be awesome too. I personally own Bitcoin.” He thinks the Texas bullion depository would be a natural fit for Bitcoin dealers. “You could make transactions with Bitcoin, use the gold depository as a medium, and then make payments on the other side.”
“This is the biggest threat in 102 years to the Federal Reserve System,” exclaimed Wiles, steeled for the fight. The state rep agreed: “This could very well make the Federal Reserve System unnecessary.” Other state legislators have approached him about drafting a similar bill in their states. Then, Wiles said, “we can tell the banksters at the Federal Reserve where to go.”
Wiles pronounced the plan “fantastic,” then moved on to his second guest, a woman with recordings of an 82-year-old Assyrian woman who speaks prophesies in Aramaic.
Federal Reserve governors can probably continue to sleep soundly at night, and it remains unclear, of course, if a bullion depository will ever be more than a novelty. But the passionate lack of faith in the foundational parts of the American federal compact shown by Texas state legislators, and the governor, in approving Capriglione’s proposal is a little disturbing. It’s a sign of deeper dysfunction. Gold fever has long been a feature of some of the more fetid swamps in American political life—its rapid normalization in Texas and adoption as state policy is odd, to say the least.
Capriglione, naturally, has been decried as a spineless moderate by tea party groups in his district—he’s currently awaiting a primary challenge.
High-profile organizing group Battleground Texas is having difficulty retaining its staff after last year’s crushing electoral defeats.
It’s mid-summer, after the legislative session and before the proper start of next year’s election cycle, which means the state’s political organizations are in full churn. Politicos of all stripes are leaving politics for policy or vice versa, getting fired and promoted, and maybe leaving the game—or the state—altogether. That’s a normal part of life in politics, where jobs are often short-term and so is loyalty.
The same holds true at the high-profile organizing group Battleground Texas, where political director Cliff Walker will be stepping down next week. It’s the latest of a number of departures by Battleground senior staff since last year’s crushing electoral defeats. Walker, who had been with the organization since the beginning in 2013, was the highest-profile Texan in the group. As the relationship between Battleground and other parts of the Democratic coalition suffered during last year’s election due to mutual distrust, it fell to Walker, respected by other Texas Dems, to try to repair things.
But since November, a lot of Battleground’s founding notables have been looking for other work. A number of Obama campaign veterans have left for greener pastures in other states, including former Campaigns Director Ramsey Reid, former Communications Director Erica Sackin, and former Field Director Victoria Zyp. Former Digital Director Christina Oliver left the organization for a job at an Austin consulting firm owned by Republican U.S. Senator John Cornyn’s former campaign manager. The departure of Walker means that a large part of the original Battleground brain trust is now gone.
Political organizations like Battleground experience a high rate of turnover naturally. And for years, there’s been something of a conveyor belt taking talented Democratic political staffers away from Texas, or out of politics altogether—options that offer more rewarding work, and usually, bigger paychecks. Former Texas Democratic Party chief Will Hailer, who party leaders expected to stay for longer than one election cycle, jumped ship shortly after last year’s election for a Washington, D.C. consulting firm.
So Battleground’s staffing issues aren’t unique—a statement from the group called them “really normal transitions,” and pointed to the continuity of Executive Director Jenn Brown’s leadership—but they could pose a greater threat to the organization than progressive groups with deeper roots in Texas. One of the talking points when the group launched concerned Battleground’s ability to attract top talent from across the nation and fuse it with in-state know-how, helped along by a dedicated source of donor money. But it will most likely be harder for Battleground to recruit top talent now.
In 2013, Battleground had sex appeal. If you were a member of Barack Obama’s blue-wave revolutionary vanguard, “flipping” Texas was an appealing and seductive goal. Now the conventional wisdom about the state’s imminent purple-fication has flipped. (Probably too far in the other direction.) But if you’re talented and you have options, the group might no longer be a first choice. And Battleground faces problems recruiting Texas talent, in part because significant mistrust still exists between other members of the Democratic coalition and Battleground.
Jeff Rotkoff, who represents one of Battleground’s largest backers, Houston mega-donor Steve Mostyn, praised Walker’s work and career and predicted he would “continue to be an important member of [the] community in whatever comes next for him.”
He told the Observer that staff turnover at Battleground is evidence the group is here to stay. “The fact is that the program works, and that neither the movement nor the model is defined by any one individual staffer. It is a good thing for Texas progressives that we are building lasting institutions—like Battleground and others—which are not defined by individual operatives, but rather by their missions and their programs.”
On or shortly after July 15, fundraising reports from Battleground and other groups in the Democratic coalition will become available, which will give us more of an idea about how they’re situated as we head toward 2016. Money aside, the coalition will have to mend fences and build a cohesive strategy to take advantage of the potential gains offered by a presidential election year.
Brown is currently developing what a statement from the group called a new “strategic plan for the organization.” In it, she’ll need to come up with fixes for a host of unresolved issues regarding Battleground’s place in the Democratic coalition. In particular, some Texas Democrats worried that Battleground would turn into an adjunct of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, to the detriment of efforts in local and legislative races. That has echoes of one of the major conflicts of the 2014 cycle—some candidates felt that Battleground’s focus on a divisive top-ticket candidate, Wendy Davis, hurt down-ballot efforts.
In the end, staff changes are less important than finding a way for the organization to work effectively with the party and candidates. We’ll soon find out if Battleground is in a position to restore some of its former luster.
A man waves a flag in front of the Texas State Capitol during the 2015 inauguration.
Rest easy, politics junkies and policy-minded sadomasochists—the carnival is beginning anew. The brief lull that follows the end of the legislative session is wrapping up. Texas politicians are now free to raise money after a six-month prohibition coinciding with the session, and many of the key figures in the more interesting primary races are snapping into place. For much of the next year, Texans with a high tolerance for bullshit will have the opportunity to follow along with the finest still-legal bloodsport in the state: Republican legislative primaries.
There will be a lot of other elections happening, of course. The GOP presidential primary in March has the potential to be relatively exciting. It’s earlier in the primary calendar next year than it was in 2012, and the field of power-craving loons currently assembled contains no less than five Texas-connected candidates—Jeb Bush, Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Rick Santorum—who have an incentive to stay in the race until after the state’s say-so.
But next year’s other events are likely to be considerably less exciting. Texas won’t be competitive in the presidential general election. Democrats stand to pick up a few state House seats—and maybe a congressional seat or two—but that won’t change things much. There will only be one sleepy statewide race: for a seat on the state’s Railroad Commission.
Of all the 2016 contests, the GOP legislative primaries have the most consequence for Texans. If you understand the Legislature as a battle between moderate Republicans and the right—a simplification, but good enough for our purposes—the GOP primaries are the filter through which one side or the other gains strength and foot soldiers.
They have huge consequences for the state; and historically, almost no one votes in them. Fewer than 1 in 35 Texans cast a vote in the 2014 runoff when Dan Patrick turned Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst into an occasional op-ed writer—and down-ballot races were decided by tiny margins. When moderate-ish GOP incumbent Bob Deuell lost his seat to tea partier Bob Hall, whose primary occupation in office has been protecting the state from electromagnetic pulse weapons, the race was decided by just 300 votes.
This go-round, like in 2014, the headlining bouts will be between those state representatives allied with House Speaker Joe Straus and those allied with Midland oilman Tim Dunn and the organizing groups he and his friends help fund. Straus is no commie, but the House remains the most consequential block on right-wing legislative efforts, and his enemies—a faction now led in part by Patrick—have struggled to unseat him for years.
Just three of the 11 Republicans who organized the coup that dethroned former House Speaker Tom Craddick in 2009 could be in office after next November—Straus himself, state Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana) and state Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth). Cook and Geren stimulate the ire of right-wingers almost as much as Straus, but barring unexpected developments both men, facing weak opponents, would seem to be favorites in their races. And Straus has recruited new allies to replace old ones over the year. Having already announced he’s seeking another term as speaker, he’s probably a lock to retain it—unless, you know, the American Phoenix Foundation has footage of him at a strip club or a vegan restaurant.
Still, the replacement of old hands with new ones has a consequential effect on how the body runs. Several moderate dealmakers probably bear some of the responsibility for the weak session we just had. This time, we’re losing a few more Republican statesmen. State Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler) is retiring. He was one of the few GOPers to openly criticize the Legislature’s fiscal irresponsibility this session, and he helped prevent some really bad bills from coming to a vote, the effort to repeal in-state tuition for undocumented students among them.
State Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) is leaving too, along with other seniors such as state Rep. Jim Keffer (R-Eastland), a top Straus lieutenant. Aycock is a GOPer who genuinely cares about public education. As chairman of the House committee that oversees it he tried to do right by the system, though his efforts sometimes dead-ended. Eltife and Aycock represent, in some ways, the best instincts of the Senate and House. In many ways, it has not been a great decade for Texas state government. As long as the state’s political culture is in thrall to the Republican primary system, Texans need lawmakers like them to mitigate possible damage.
Now they’ll be gone. What kind of people will replace them? Here’s six GOP races to watch to take the temperature of the state’s political climate.
The weirdest race shaping up—and perhaps the most entertaining, if you enjoy carnival barking—is a tea party attempt to can state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione (R-Southlake), who tea partiers installed in office just three years ago. Gio, as he’s known, has gone soft, you see. Last year, he was much like the rest of the tea party caucus: He handed out chocolate coins on the floor to promote his efforts to bring Texas gold home from the Federal Reserve. (That passed this year, oddly enough.) But just before this year’s session, he told a disbelieving and furious crowd in Tarrant County that he’d be voting for Straus for speaker over hapless tea party favorite Scott Turner.
Now the same people who helped get him elected are out to cut his jugular and wring him dry like a wet rag, thanks to Very Serious Disagreements About Policy. In May, Northeast Tarrant Tea Party leader Julie McCarty discovered she’d been banned from commenting on his Facebook page. He’d gone full Judas. Upon such bans is state history made: In an emotional post to her followers, she announced the gloves were coming off. A primary was coming. Capriglione characterized his critics as “fringe” and a “small minority” to The Dallas Morning News.
Tim Dunn’s house organ, a blog called AgendaWise, suggested McCarty primary him herself. She seemed delighted by the suggestion but has elsewhere hinted another challenger is forthcoming. Now, some of the best organized tea party groups in the state seem poised to spend resources this election cycle further making an enemy out of someone with whom they still agree on most policy particulars. It’s primaries all the way down, man.
Those two top Straus lieutenants, Cook and Geren, each have primary challengers. Could the challengers win? Sure, I guess. But each challenger leaves something to be desired. Geren will face Bo French. French, his site announces, is a “life-long Christian” and “the next generation of conservative leadership,” and he has the smile, hair, and blonde family to prove it. He also has a history of terrible acrimony with Taya Kyle, the widow of Chris Kyle of American Sniper fame. If you want to run in a GOP primary in North Texas, one thing you assuredly do not want to be is the dread and mortal enemy of Kyle’s widow, a woman who has become something akin to the Virgin Mother of DFW. It is pretty mystifying.
Cook faces Thomas McNutt, a member of the McNutt family that owns Collin Street Bakery, “world renowned for its fruitcakes.” Thomas seems like a nice guy, but the McNutt family and its patriarch, Bill, have a long and sordid history of creepy behavior toward women, substance abuse, legal problems and other demons, written up extensively in D Magazine and other publications.
Say what you will about the anti-Straus coalition, but their candidate recruitment schemes could use some work.
There will also be a few primary challenges in the other direction. Tea party stalwart state Rep. Matt Rinaldi (R-Irving) will face another race with former state Rep. Bennett Ratliff, who lost the GOP primary to Rinaldi in 2014 by just 94 votes. With greater turnout in a presidential year possibly favoring more moderate Republicans, Rinaldi will be a high-profile target.
And in the Senate—pretty right-wing already, of course—two races could push it further right. Eltife’s retirement has sparked a flurry of interest from prospective candidates, but the two most prominent are probably state Rep. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola), dutiful Christian conservative, and state Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview). Both are more conservative than Eltife in several ways, though Simpson is more of an iconoclast-libertarian (and a proponent of legal pot).
Also retiring is state Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay), who long ago ossified into a truculent, paid-for defender of industry with few other convictions besides humiliating freshmen. He’s not much of a loss, to be honest. If state Rep. Susan King (R-Abilene) decides to run, and wins, it may even be a step forward for the Senate—but it’s a race to watch. This is, after all, a district that overlaps with that of state representative and Muslim-whisperer Molly White, who came from obscurity to triumph in her race. She almost certainly won’t run, but another like-minded citizen-activist might.
There will also be a number of primary challenges for Texas congressmen, those filthy RINOs. Blake Farenthold and Lamar Smith face challengers. Up in the Metroplex, there’s been some talk that freshmen state senators Don Huffines and Bob Hall could challenge Pete Sessions and Jeb Hensarling, respectively—they could do that and keep their senate seats—but both have so far demurred. A Hall staffer emailed on Monday to say that he had “no interest” in Hensarling’s seat, and that he was “working hard to make a difference here on the state level.”
Presidential hopeful Rick Perry announces his bid at a sweltering hangar in an airport in Addison.
Time is a flat circle: Rick Perry is upon us again.
You didn’t think former Gov. James Richard Perry, of the Paint Creek Perrys, was leaving us for good, did you? It has been 30 years since Perry entered public service, almost half of which he spent as a governor whose level of dominance over the state verged on a personality cult. He entered the Texas House the year The Goonies came out; became agriculture commissioner the year of R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion;” and won the lieutenant governor’s gavel amid Y2K panic. A child born on the day Rick Perry became governor of Texas would now be behind the wheel with her learner’s permit, and would have known the state under other leadership for just four months.
Perry was never going to go away quietly, oops or no. If you were to make the case for his presidential ambitions, you could point to his survivor’s instinct and his long history of success as a political chameleon—first a Democrat, then a Republican; first a believer in certain parts of the infrastructure of big government, then a tea partier; a Christian conservative, or a Tenther libertarian. What are his actual beliefs? Does he have any, or is he motivated solely by his love of the performance of power? If the latter, it might be the most presidential thing about him.
His task this presidential campaign, which got its official start today at a hangar owned by the Million Air luxury aviation service company at the airport in Addison, north of Dallas, is this: to be taken seriously again. In 2011, his campaign was a last-minute, unfocused mish-mash, launched to exploit a gap in the GOP field. He delivered metric tons of red meat, but was outed as an immigration moderate (for a Republican) by Mitt Romney, and his campaign died long before his excruciating debate moment.
Now, his campaign seems more focused—premised on a couple of core messages. He placed a heavy emphasis on his respect for The Troops, and a coterie of retired Navy SEALs and veterans of wars dating back to World War II accompanied him on stage. Pete Scobell, a SEAL turned country singer, introduced the vets one by one. “Rick Perry has what it takes to lead,” said Scobell.
He was “the man who we need in Washington,” where “for too long, we’ve lacked leadership.” Obama has disgraced veterans. Implied in Perry’s focus on the military and his own service record: Few others in the Republican field have served in the military. Rick and Anita Perry had helped and comforted veterans, including the twin former SEALs Marcus and Morgan Luttrell, Scobell told the crowd. The virile Perry had even given Marcus advice on his “love life.”
When Perry appeared, he did so to the tune of a country-rap remix about himself—a probable first in the history of American political campaigns. As he spoke, he was flanked by the stern and solemn Luttrells as if they were his honor guard. Perry stood in front of an impressive backdrop: a giant C-130A flown in from Arizona for the occasion, at presumably significant expense. The plane was similar to the one he used to fly as an officer in the Air Force. The decision to launch the campaign in an enormous metal airplane hangar in North Dallas in June had its trade-offs: By the end of his long speech, Perry was sweating heavily.
Perry emphasized, at great length, his hardscrabble upbringing in Haskell County—the outhouse, his hand-sewn clothes—his time as a cotton farmer, his service as a rural legislator. Instead of lunging for the rawest, reddest red meat on hand, he preferred to simply reiterate the core values of the conservative base: “Our values come from God, not the government.”
He hammered on foreign policy—something he’s been doing more and more of since his last presidential campaign. He compared the pull-out from Iraq to America’s withdrawal from Vietnam. “Cities secured by American blood are now being taken by our enemies,” he told the crowd.
If America becomes confident again, America will vanquish its enemies, somehow. “We don’t have to apologize for American exceptionalism or Western values,” Perry said. On his first day in office he promised to halt “all pending regulations from the Obama Administration,” issue an executive order to build the Keystone XL pipeline and nullify any deal Barry signs with the Iranians.
He dinged big banks, while saying he would unleash the power of the American economy. (He reminded the crowd that “capitalism isn’t corporatism,” which is a little strange to hear from the man who controlled the purse strings of the Texas Enterprise Fund.) He offered a hand to “millennials,” who he called “forgotten Americans.” In sum, the American people’s faith in government had to be restored, and he, who needed a second chance himself, would be the one to do it.
Missing in Perry’s speech: a treatment of the two decades he spent in Austin, entrenching himself as the state’s top political club-wielder and enriching himself and his friends. Also missing—the word “indictment” did not come up. For example, Anita Perry did not say, “Rick Perry, my husband, is currently under felony indictment.”
That would have been a buzzkill. But it’s true. Plane or no, SEALs or no, back-to-basics messaging or no, there’s a serious chance that Perry will be knocked down by legal troubles as his campaign advances. But even if the case drags on indefinitely, or indeed if he’s ultimately acquitted, the indictment will weigh on him. If you’re a GOP-leaning plutocrat and you’re out to back the winning horse, you’d have to really be moved by the spirit to give your millions to a dude who stands a chance of being convicted, even if those chances might only be, say, 10 or 20 percent.
On the other hand, there are reasons to believe Perry will do better this time. Here’s one: The GOP field will likely have enough members by the time things get going in earnest to make up a pretty crummy football team. If Perry can meet a minimal level of Seriousness—in part by vacuuming up enough rich men’s money—he’ll look good by comparison. And recently, he hired Avik Roy of the Manhattan Institute as a policy advisor. (Roy is a serious figure in conservative policy circles who helped Mitt Romney in 2012, and his decision to back Perry is interesting at the least.)
But Perry doesn’t need to win the nomination to win—if he just does well enough to wash out the stains he left last time in the American popular imagination, it’s a victory. There are worse gigs to have in this culture than a former semi-successful Republican presidential contender, especially for those who love money and fame. Who knows, though? Maybe he’ll go back to flying.
The much more commonly expressed sentiment at the Capitol in the last few weeks has been a shrug, and some variation of the sentiment: It could have been worse.
It was the not-so-bad of times; it was the not-that-great of times.
How did the recently laid-to-rest Lege session go? On one side of the analytical spectrum, you have Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who posited that the 84th was “one of the most, if not the most, productive legislative sessions in the history of the Texas Senate,” and added that House Bill 1 was “the best budget the Senate’s ever produced.” On the other, you have Congressman Joaquin Castro, who elected to speak ill of the recently departed by calling the 84th “perhaps the worst legislative session in Texas history,” which is a pretty high bar—there are many other fine candidates.
But the much more commonly expressed sentiment at the Capitol in the last few weeks has been a shrug, and some variation of the sentiment: It could have been worse. None of the three ideological factions that hold power in the Lege—conservative Republicans, establishment Republicans and Democrats—did exceptionally well.
The most fiery impulses of Patrick and the Senate freshman were blunted by the process, and tea partiers know it. Patrick was unable to advance many of the issues he railed on to win his primary, like repealing in-state tuition at state colleges for undocumented residents, and his number one priority, a property tax cut plan, shrank over time. House Republicans helped fix a few substantial issues—pensions, health care for teachers—but lost other fights, including attempts to bolster Medicaid and the state’s crummy school finance system, and did worse than their Senate counterparts in budget negotiations. And effectively powerless Democrats can claim credit for helping to kill some bad bills, but will remain dyspeptic about the state’s general direction.
Where substantial policy disagreements existed, lawmakers often sidestepped the issue entirely rather than hashing things out. A lot of cans got kicked down the road, as Kevin Eltife and Jimmie Don Aycock can tell you. One example of the session’s M.O.: The cost of the Hazlewood program, which discounts tuition at in-state colleges for veterans and their children, has ballooned. Because the state doesn’t fully reimburse colleges for the cost of the law, it amounts to a giant unfunded mandate on overburdened educational institutions.
Lawmakers finally had a debate on Hazlewood this year. They could have fixed the program by cutting the benefits, or they could have used some of the $18 billion dollars in unspent money the state is hoarding to fully fund the mandate lawmakers set. They did neither: In one of the session’s headlining feel-good moments, the House chose to punt the ball. Veterans’ benefits, of course, are laudable. But the cheerful way in which the Lege elected to skip over the hard questions the program poses seemed emblematic of a larger problem.
To be fair, the state had some new players this go-round, Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott among them. There’s a steep learning curve to their new positions. And it’s encouraging that, after what had been a bumpy road, they and Speaker Joe Straus were able to come to agreement on many of the issues facing them, avoiding a potentially disastrous special session on budget issues—even if the results of those deals aren’t particularly laudable. Of the six Legislatures since 2001, five have needed summer special sessions for unfinished work. It seems like we won’t have one. Abbott set reachable goals as his emergency items for the session, and he won enough of them to declare victory.
There are much worse things the 84th Legislature can do than not doing much at all. But there’s also an opportunity cost here: The state’s shaky near-term economic prospects mean the 85th Legislature could face a more difficult set of circumstances than the 84th did. Lawmakers had a hell of a lot of money this go-round, and an opportunity to make more serious, thoughtful changes to the way the state works.
Instead, with tax cuts and other budget ploys, they ensured that future lawmakers will have less money to play with, in a harder economic climate. The longer the state goes without rectifying its systemic underinvestment in education, infrastructure and health care, the more it is going to cost to catch up.
But, you know: It could have been worse! There’s a palpable sense of relief in Austin. School is out, and the state hasn’t burned to the ground. So, lawmakers, enjoy your summer.
The 84th Texas Legislature has made sure the state will keep its nationally renowned status for nutty politics.
The Texas Legislature bids us goodbye today: For the next 19 months—barring a special session on school finance—the state’s residents are more or less safe, as long as you avoid Kory Watkins and Borris Miles. It’s a session that has seen its fair share of comic interludes, and Texas has once again kept secure its nationally renowned status as a nutty state for politics.
But in many ways, the Texas Legislature is probably calmer and more professional than it has ever been. For much of the state’s history, the session was a time where men from far-flung reaches of the state came to a relatively large city to booze and whore for five-month interludes before returning to the Gulf coast or the Panhandle or Highland Park. That held true for longer than you might expect. Billy Lee Brammer wrote in Texas Monthly in 1973 that “the Capitol itself, along with all House and Senate office buildings, is honeycombed with secret lovenests.” The past is filled with many fine statesmen, of course; one shouldn’t generalize.
To be sure, there’s still boozing and whoring, though probably less, and definitely done more discreetly. But in other areas, things are, in many ways, better. Until relatively recently, many legislators had no office at the Capitol and no staff to speak of. With less public scrutiny, they were even easier pickings for the lobby, which operated with zero transparency. Austin’s brothels, no great secret, did a healthy trade. And legislators faced a generally more forgiving attitude from the press corps.
There are still ignorant and corrupt legislators. The lobby still watches each incoming freshman class like vultures. But on the whole, the dysfunction of the recent past can’t hold a candle to its historical counterpart.
Here’s a very short list of some highlights. If you have a favorite story—one that ought to be here—email it to me at [email protected] and we’ll add the best ones.
The Legislature can, at the best of times, sort of run the state, so imagine the sheer drama of watching its predecessor, the Congress of the Republic of Texas, run a nation. It was filled with rough men, and they often had a rough go of things.
On April 14, 1838, President Sam Houston gave an address to a joint session of Congress. Just after, Thomas William “Peg Leg” Ward, a fearsome Irish-born Texas pol, hit Francis R. Lubbock, then the Republic’s comptroller, with a stick. (History does not specify that the stick was, in fact, Peg Leg’s leg, though it is fun to think so.) Lubbock pulled a derringer and fired, with only the “timely intervention of a bystander” preventing Lubbock’s aim from being true.
The two were arrested and brought before the Senate, but, as is recorded in The Texas Senate: Volume I, Lubbock was “honorably discharged” from his arrest by Sen. Jonathan Russell. Both were brothers in the Holland Lodge, a Masonic organization that met in the Senate chamber and was instrumental in setting Republic policy. The group counted eight of the upper chamber’s 17 senators as members. Poor Peg Leg, the guy who was the one actually shot at, was officially reprimanded.
Volume I goes on to note, cautiously: “It is interesting to note that Lubbock earlier had sold his warehouse to be converted into an official residence for President Houston, also a Mason.”
We had some tense committee meetings this session, and some tense floor debates. None match the furor caused in 1870, when a bill authorizing the governor to declare martial law and deploy the state militia hit the Senate floor.
When 13 senators opposed to the bill left the chamber to deny the Senate a quorum, and bolted the door of their conference room behind them, the radical Republicans who ran the Senate sent the long arm of the law after them. Windows of the room were smashed, and the senators were arrested. The Republicans voted for the militia bill without them. They released four—just enough to maintain a quorum—and kept the others under arrest for some three weeks while they passed bills.
When one senator involved in the walk-out, E.L. Alford, was stripped of his seat and a special election selected his replacement, Alford came to work anyway. His elected replacement had to sit in the wings.
Next session: Bob Hall passes his EMP bill—by any means necessary.
A frequent complaint among tea partiers is that no one in Austin reads the bills they pass. But even here, things are better than they used to be, in part because of the addition of legislative staff.
In 1969, state Rep. Tom Moore introduced and passed a resolution through the House, honoring a man he said had done important work in the field of “population control.”
This compassionate gentleman’s dedication and devotion to his work has enabled the weak and the lonely throughout the nation to achieve and maintain a new degree of concern for their future. He has been officially recognized by the state of Massachusetts for his noted activities and unconventional techniques involving population control and applied psychology.
State Rep. Curtis Graves, a liberal African-American legislator from Houston elected in 1966, had to improvise in order to be heard. Once, he railed against a tax bill by standing and yelling on the House press table. In 1971, concerned about measures that made it easier to purchase handguns—thankfully, an issue we no longer face—he took the back mic in the House, pulled a revolver out of his pocket, and fired twice at the House ceiling.
The scene on the floor of the House was bedlam: representatives clustered around the Speaker’s desk whispering advice; others gathered at the back microphone bellowing for recognition; and smaller groups huddled at scattered spots across the giant chamber where members passed rumors or strained to hear them. It was the closing hour of the 1971 regular session of the Texas Legislature, and the legislative process had broken down under the weight of the Sharpstown Scandal.
The heavy-handed tactics of Speaker Gus Mutscher, under attack for shepherding two suspicious-looking banking bills through a previous special session for discredited Houston promoter Frank Sharp, had divided the House into three groups: blind loyalists, troubled conservatives, and a coalition of liberals and Republicans known as the Dirty Thirty. A huge backlog of legislation was hopelessly stalled, and time was running out. Would Mutscher ask the governor to call a special session? Or would he order the hands of the clock turned back at midnight, extending the session while he tried to arm-twist members into passing a few of the more important bills? Or perhaps he would make a dramatic appeal to the House, asking members to put aside animosities and try to pass something in the little time remaining.
“May I have your attention, members?” Mutscher for once had no trouble with this request; all eyes were on him. “The Chair recognizes Mr. Nelms.”
The legislators were stunned. Why Nelms, everyone was thinking. Johnny Nelms of Pasadena was only a freshman, and a mediocre one at that. What could he do? The silence was broken by the sound of a guitar. Johnny Nelms could sing, that’s what he could do. And as the clock at the back of the chamber ticked away the final minutes of Gus Mutscher’s hegemony over the House, Johnny Nelms serenaded his colleagues with a song the Speaker particularly liked. It was called “Everything I Touch Turns to Dirt.”
Shortly after, Mutscher was indicted.
Earlier this session, Rep. Harold Dutton quizzed Rep. Stuart Spitzer about his sexual history, in what some felt was a session low point for the gentlemanly decorum the Texas House has become world-renowned for.
In 1993, state Rep. Warren Chisum, terrified that the state’s ban on sodomy would someday be overturned, offered an amendment that was very nondiscriminatory—it would have banned everyone from having anal sex. Chisum read his amendment, though he said it was “quite offensive to me to have to read it in public.” The amendment would make it a Class C misdemeanor for the “sexual organs” of one person to touch the “anus of another.” The following debate ensued:
State Rep. Debra Danburg: You’re trying to criminalize behavior between the opposite sex, is that right? Chisum: That’s right. Danburg: Even if they’re married. Chisum: More especially if they’re married. Can’t believe anyone would do that if they were married. Danburg: Even if it’s consensual. Chisum: Under any circumstances. Danburg: Even if they slip. Is that right, Mr. Chisum?
[laughter] Chisum: A violation of the law is a violation of the law. Danburg: OK, Warren. […] Say my husband and I were having intercourse, and it slipped. And it touched my anus. Do I need to go turn myself in to some health official? Chisum: I would suggest you see a doctor about his aim.
~ Bonus Whitmire! ~
This session, a couple senators—though especially poor state Sen. Don Huffines—got the full-on Boogie treatment from state Sen. John Whitmire, who from time to time feels his ire rise on the Senate floor and verbally, brutally bludgeons his opponents like a partially-reformed loan shark collecting gambling debts.
This doesn’t really belong on the list, but at the end of this session in particular it needs to be seen. Here’s Whitmire giving the full dressing-down to then freshman state Sen. Dan Patrick in 2007:
They’re debating the budget. Patrick has suggested that there are $3 billion in cuts to be made, and Whitmire smells bullshit. He starts pacing and throwing fingers around.
“Give me the method of financing that you would use to make those cuts. It’s your time to show this body that you know what you’re talking about. Give us the $3 billion in cuts,” he half shouts. “And take your time.”
“I will take my time, senator,” Patrick says, “and I do know what I’m talking about. And I don’t have to stand here and be lectured by you.” To which Whitmire shouts: “Let’s GO!”
Patrick: “I don’t have to be lectured to by you.” Whitmire shouts back: “You can dish it out but you can’t take it, huh?
It goes on for a while. The whole thing is worth watching, with headphones, if the Legislature entertains you. Eight years later, Whitmire is still a shouty, fierce maniac who terrifies freshmen. And Patrick still wants to cut government, but doesn’t seem to know now. The more things change …
Steve Hotze, right, at the 2014 convention of the Republican Party of Texas
It’s nice to be read. On Thursday, the Observer published a short item on the anti-gay marriage resolution Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s Senate passed this week. The gist of the piece: The resolution amounted to nothing, and reflected Patrick’s failure to pass other socially conservative legislation through his chamber. Because of that, his conscious attempts to blame the House for not passing gay-baiting bills are a bit… strange.
The piece was endorsed by an unusual source—would-be conservative warlord and pseudo-medical quack Steve Hotze, who leads the Conservative Republicans of Texas. Hotze is a considerable, oddball force in GOP politics here in Texas. Yes, he raps. But he’s not simply a joke: his endorsements carry real weight, and the CRT is an influential group. He was a huge fan of Patrick during the election last year:
Yesterday, the CRT sent out a lengthy email to its supporters, excerpting much of our piece. The headline—“Republican Leadership Fails to Defend Biblical Marriage: Huge Opportunity Squandered.”
Here’s a sample of the juicier bits. (Emphasis Hotze’s, throughout, and pics of the full email here.)
The reason the Republican leadership in the House and Senate did not pass a law prohibiting the issuance of homosexual marriage licenses is because they chose not to bring it up for a vote. […] Lt. Governor Dan Patrick and his lieutenant, Senator Joan Huffman, refused even to give a hearing in the Senate State Affairs Committee on SB 673, the senate companion bill to HB 4105, the Preservation of State Sovereignty and Marriage Act.
Hotze blames Abbott and Straus too, at length, but his criticism of Patrick is the most notable part. What are the stakes here? Gay people, you see, are “fascists” who going to force “the practice of sodomy” on Texas “families, churches, schools and businesses.” (Wait, how does a business practice sodomy?)
A bill preserving Biblical marriage in Texas should have been passed by the Texas Legislature months ago. The legislature has passed hundreds of other bills, but the Republican leaders chose not to pass legislation that would defend the Texas Marriage Amendment against the usurpation of our state sovereignty by the federal courts. Their lack of action and cowardice is inexcusable.
The homosexuals are intent on destroying Biblical marriage and throwing our state and nation into sexual and moral anarchy. They are fascists who want to force the acceptance and normalization of the homosexual lifestyle, the practice of sodomy, upon individuals, families, churches, schools and businesses. They want the government to mandate that homosexual conduct be taught to school children starting in kindergarten. The teachers will encourage the children to experiment with homosexual activity so that they can more easily be recruited into the homosexual lifestyle. The homosexuals and their pro-homosexual allies in the media are demonizing Christians and intend to criminalize Biblical Christianity.
Hotze instructs his email recipients to call Abbott and ask for a special session on gay-baiting. Good luck with that.
Then, he copy-and-pastes much of the Observer’s piece. Here’s the last graph quoted from our story—again, emphasis his—followed by his commentary:
It’s a comprehensive flop for the forces who oppose gay marriage. Nonetheless, Patrick told the Senate to buck up. They “should be proud,” he said. “The House decided not to have this debate.” That’s a dig at Speaker Joe Straus, of course. But since Patrick couldn’t get anything consequential out of his own chamber either, who is he pointing fingers at?
Texas failed to lead the nation in defense of Biblical marriage. How tragic! This was so avoidable!
Hotze is a clown—a lot of Republicans think so, too—but he’s an important and powerful clown. A session in which both the tea party and Hotze are unhappy with Patrick is not the worst session the state could have had.
After the 2014 election, there was some talk that Hotze had drawn up a nefarious “Contract for Texas” as a plan to advance socially conservative legislation, with the knowledge of some people in Patrick’s camp. So much for that, I guess.
Last session, legislators took sides in a marathon brawl over payday lending reform. But after those reforms died, there seemed to be little hope for action on the issue this year. As the 84th Legislature unfurled, though, a few small bills advanced. One of them, Senate Bill 1282, was hailed by some reformers as a modest but helpful augmentation of the ability of the Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner to regulate short-term lenders, including payday lenders. On Wednesday, it was killed by state Rep. Marisa Márquez (D-El Paso).
It’s a move one reformer who supported the bill called “disrespectful.” Márquez says her distaste for the bill didn’t necessarily have to do with the bill’s provisions, but rather the lack of opportunity lawmakers had to change it—something advocates of the bill had been trying to avoid. “With an issue this important, there should have been an opportunity for the rest of us to participate in it,” said Márquez.
The legislation—authored by state Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler) and carried in the House by state Rep. Tan Parker (R-Flower Mound)—was a relatively simple “clean-up” bill that would have clarified the powers of the little-known Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner, or OCCC, the state agency that licenses and regulates lenders. The agency had been asking for the bill for several sessions, and reform groups had been helping to drag it to the finish line.
Bee Moorhead, the executive director of Texas Impact, an interfaith advocacy group, said the bill was “not radical reform legislation,” but a series of needed technical changes. Among other things, the bill would have added references to the newly-created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to state law. And it would have given the OCCC clear authority to regulate lawsuit lenders, who loan cash to plaintiffs awaiting judgements or settlements in civil lawsuits. “Regulating this relatively new product early would help Texas avoid future conflicts,” Moorhead said, “like those that have occurred in other markets, such as payday lending.”
SB 1282 had already traveled a rocky road through the session. Some, including Republicans like state Rep. Tom Craddick (R-Midland), wanted to add other, stronger reform measures as amendments to the bill. But progress slowed, and Craddick never got the chance. That’s a familiar story for legislation reforming consumer loans, such as payday, auto title and property tax loans—only simple and carefully negotiated bills can make it through the process, and advocates are divided between those who want to push for more and those who are happy with incremental reform.
But SB 1282 wound up on the Local & Consent calendar on Wednesday, giving the House one more chance to send it to the governor’s desk. That’s when Márquez knocked it off the calendar—a procedural move that effectively killed it.
“There was concern that language in there could promote cash lending. So it was something that we probably should have debated on the House floor,” said Márquez. “I’m sorry it was there so late, but it wasn’t something we could just pass without debate.”
But opening the bill up to amendments could have tanked it by making the legislation unpalatable to lenders—something that has happened to other payday lending bills in the past. And the result of the bill’s death is simply that state regulators will go for the next two years without the tools they say they need to do their job.
Moorhead, who denies the bill would have “promote[d] cash lending,” says the bill was a simple matter of upholding good government. “It seems irresponsible for legislators to talk so much about the need for efficiency and accountability at agencies, and then to allow routine agency legislation to become collateral in political showdowns.” She added: “It’s a small moment in a legislative session that has been full of big moments, but that should not be an excuse to let it go by unnoticed.”
Márquez, though, puts the blame back on the reformers. If they wanted the bill to pass, she says, “they probably should have involved more of us in the conversation about it.”