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Hooks on Politics

Jonathan Stickland
Rep. Jonathan Stickland speaking at the 2015 Lincoln Day Dinner for the Tarrant County Republican Party in Fort Worth, Texas.

 

When news came on Thursday that state Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford) had been physically ejected from a meeting of the House Committee on Transportation by its chairman, state Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso), over what the latter alleges was a bizarre and pointless plan to falsify witness lists in support of one of Stickland’s bills, it was totally unsurprising to Stickland’s many fans at the Capitol. And yet the tale was also totally delightful—like a cool mountain breeze, or the sun on a warm winter day.

In a session replete with clown shows—Kory Watkins’ annexation of state Rep. Poncho Nevarez’s office seems so distant now that it feels as part of a lost childhood, like a Madeleine cake—Stickland has delivered over and over again, one of the state’s most unbeatable and unproductive generators of tomfoolery. He’s underappreciated, though. Thanks to the intense resentment he’s garnered from his fellow legislators and lege-watchers, people aren’t giving him enough credit as a wholly unique practitioner of Lege performance art.

To that end, and to lend a sort of scientific respectability to the admittedly unscientific art of Stickland-watching, I propose a new metric to be introduced in the evaluation of his near-constant gaffes and schemes: the Stickland Number. We can find the Stickland Number by dividing the volume of Stickland’s shenanigans, judged on a scale from 1 to 10, by the extent to which the shenanigans helped Stickland advance his policy priorities, as judged on the same scale, like so:

(Stickland’s shenanigans / Stickland’s impact)

Here’s just a few of the many wonderful things Stickland has done for the benefit of the Austin press corps during the last four months:

—Jonathan Stickland: Winter is Coming

The session started off pretty slow for Stickland, actually. Yes, he was the Legislature’s only real friend of the open carry wackos who freaked everyone out in January. He spoke at their rallies. He raged against committee assignments when they appeared to threaten his bill, and he was accused of baiting the loonies threatening Nevarez.

Not much came of it, but it’s still a crucial part of Stickland’s origin story for the 84th, like when Bruce Wayne’s parents got shot. “We’re told we need to respect the process,” Stickland told the Houston Chronicle, “but I can’t respect the process if it doesn’t allow all legislation to be heard.” Foreshadowing!

Shenanigans: Mild. 2.
Stickland’s impact: His bill was dead anyway. 1.
Stickland Number: 2.

—Jonathan Stickland, Proud Ex-Baby

Stickland recovered from early setbacks with a great plan to make a stand: He took a sign from Texas Right to Life and posted it outside his House office.

News and pictures of the sign eventually appeared in national news outlets, giving some Americans their first taste of Stickland. Lucky them. But before long, Stickland’s nemesis, state Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Ft. Worth), came round to take down the sign—or, as Stickland has it, his sign was “ripped down and thrown in my staffer’s face.” The walls of the Capitol, Geren said, are not there to be decorated like some teenager’s bedroom. Geren, the head of House Administration, denied charges that he had aggressively intimidated Stickland’s staff. “If Stickland wants to act like a child, that’s fair, but I did not rip it down,” he said. But Stickland was having none of it, he told the Austin American-Statesman:

“I think the Kumbaya is about to be over,” Stickland said. “It’s time to start telling the voters where we stand. I think people are beginning to get anxious.” […] “We are about to start cutting each other to shreds,” he said.

Shenanigans: Stickland won some nice press with this. “Cutting each other to shreds?” 6.
Stickland’s impact: Nothing was accomplished. 1.
Stickland Number: 6.

—Jonathan Stickland’s Night of the Long Knives
Shortly after signgate, the House met to consider its budget. Stickland was ready for battle. Past is prelude. He’d finally shiv House leadership, and they’d come to understand their mistake, in time. He warned the Dallas Morning News of the trouble to come:

“A lot of people are frustrated that their legislation isn’t moving. They’re going to try to put their bills on the budget,” said Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, who filed several amendments on illegal immigration. “It’ll be a bloody day on the House floor,” he said.

While the night was long, no blood came. Most votes were not even close. Stickland gave up, or he was outmaneuvered. One exception: at 2 in the morning, Stickland took to the back mic to make one of the more important and principled stands against big government we’ve seen thus far this session. He wanted to cut the budget for the feral hog abatement program.

Government, he said, couldn’t solve our problems—not even the hog problem. Long live hog, said Stickland. Feral hogs are a collective, like the Borg. But Stickland wanted us to fight them as individuals. Foolish. Only seven reps voted with Stickland, meaning the hog blood, at least, will continue to flow.

Shenanigans: Stickland gave up. 2.
Stickland’s impact: Same number of dead hogs as before. 1.
Stickland Number: 2.

—Jonathan Stickland is No Cheap Date, Charlie 

After the budget fight, Stickland begin using a new tactic. This would be much more effective. The House has something called a Local and Consent calendar, through which uncontroversial bills can be passed quickly. Stickland’s plan was to slow it down for no real reason and ask a lot of questions whenever he saw a potentially problematic bill, then let it pass anyway, something that would surely win him many friends in a chamber where most people are counting down the seconds till they can go back to The Cloak Room. Could anything drag Stickland away from the back mic? Our long-suffering superhero’s archenemy had a plan:

CHARLIE GEREN used OATMEAL COOKIE! It’s not very effective

Shenanigans: Should Geren stop bullying Stickland? Probably. Should Stickland step to the mic less? Also probably. 4.
Stickland’s impact: All involved lost precious minutes of our lives, like sands slipping through the hourglass, as we march relentlessly toward the grave. 1.
Stickland Number: 4.

—Jonathan Stickland Gets Respect

When an open carry bill finally came up for a vote in the House, Stickland was incensed. The bill required a license to carry a gun in public. He had planned for months to offer an amendment to nuke the gun license.

But House leadership wouldn’t recognize his amendment, claiming it wasn’t germane to the bill, a procedural requirement. Was it really, or were the guys in charge kicking Stickland in the shins? Stickland took to the mic to protest.

He railed against House leadership in a 10-minute angry tirade, asking state Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton), manning the House dais, why he had been railroaded all session long. In one beautiful moment, he was asked by Bonnen to bring his objections to the front of the House, to discuss them with the parliamentarian. His answer: “How has that worked out for me so far?”

But at one particularly climactic moment in his speech—essentially, Stickland saying, “No, YOU’RE out of order!”—the tide turned in Stickland’s favor. Cheering and applause could suddenly be heard in the House. It was like a movie.

But it wasn’t from the legislators. It was from elementary school kids in the gallery, during a Capitol tour. With presumably no idea what the fight was about, they found themselves moved solely by Stickland’s passion. Finally, somebody who speaks his language.

Shenanigans: Stickland at his most cinematic. 5.
Stickland’s impact: Children are our future, but they can’t vote. Also, amendment killed. 1.
Stickland Number: 5.

—Jonathan Stickland and the Battle of Pickett’s Charge

Things came to a head on Thursday. Has our heat-packing hero met his match?

As with any good bout, the battle began with one pugilist messing with the other’s head. When Stickland tried to derail a Pickett bill giving Federal Reserve security officers limited law enforcement powers in Texas, which was set to sail through the Local & Consent calendar—yes, he’s still doing that—Pickett came prepared. He walked to the back mic to give Stickland a large-font printout of his bill with two carefully drawn stick figures—one labeled “good guy” and one labeled “bad guy”-to illustrate the intent of the bill.

Inappropriate? Maybe. But that was nothing compared to what happened later in Pickett’s committee. Pickett and another rep slowly came to the realization that a lot of the people who signed up as witnesses to support one of Stickland’s bills, a ban on city red-light cameras, weren’t actually at the Capitol or even in Austin. That means someone had to sign them up—a potentially illegal act. (All witnesses who testify or register positions on bills have to sign up personally and swear an oath the information they provide is correct.)

When Stickland came to the mic to introduce his bill, Pickett began calling the fake witnesses on the phone, revealing that they couldn’t have signed themselves up to testify on the bill. And then, sputtering fury commenced. Pickett and Stickland began arguing. And Pickett had Stickland physically ejected from the meeting by House security. You can watch one video of the ejection here. (The meeting was taped officially, but that hasn’t been released yet.)

This is the quintessential Stickland Event: A tremendous amount of preparation and planning and noise and fury for no reward at all, even if the thing had worked. The number of witnesses had no material bearing on whether the bill would ultimately be passed. And because of the false sign-ins, a House ethics body is now investigating, with potentially serious consequences for those involved. (Stickland denies he knew anything about it.)

Shenanigans: Be more chill, man. 9.
Stickland’s impact: Bill dead, as it probably was already. Did Stickland or his staff expose him or his supporters to perjury charges? 1.
Stickland Number: 9.

I, for one, am excited to see what the next month holds.

Don Huffines
Sen. Don Huffines approaches Peak Dallas

The Senate should eat its spinach, declared Gov. Greg Abbott, the Legislature’s kind-hearted but distant paterfamilias. Among the moderate and nutritious items he laid out as priorities for his first legislative session as governor, one would be good for the whole family: ethics reform.

Did you know that legislators do not much like being told how they can and cannot make money? On Tuesday, one of the Legislature’s signature ethics bills, Senate Bill 19, stepped on to the Senate floor a ghost of its former self, having been pilloried in committee. But once debate began, it was overhauled against the author’s wishes. Greatly strengthened in some ways and weakened in others, it eventually passed by a unanimous vote.

But could the debate—full of weird and acrimonious invective between senators, and involving the passage of a large number of amendments, including one which mandates drug testing for those who hope to become elected officials—threaten the bill’s future?

SB 19’s author, state Sen. Van Taylor (R-Plano), called his bill the “most significant ethics reform package of a generation” on Tuesday, as if it had already passed. His fellow senators seemed more doubtful. They made significant changes to Taylor’s bill, which seeks to make the ways lawmakers make money more transparent and to prevent legislators from immediately becoming lobbyists when they leave public service.

Their efforts to tweak the bill culminated in an unusual last-minute gutting of a key provision of Taylor’s bill against his wishes, making the events of Tuesday one of the stranger Senate floor debates of the session.

Abbott had wanted any ethics reform package to prohibit legislators and other elected state officials who practice law from earning referral fees—payments for referring a case to another lawyer. Taylor presented the provision as an urgent part of his ethics overhaul, prompted by the case of New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who was recently arrested and charged with making millions of dollars in a kickback scheme utilizing referral fees to mask what amounted to bribes, among other improprieties. “Referral fees are ripe for corruption,” Taylor said.

But several senators, lawyers themselves, opposed this provision—asking why other professions that deal with referral fees, such as realtors, weren’t included in the bill.

“I don’t think you know the full impact that this bill has on practicing [lawyers who are] legislators,” state Sen. Chuy Hinojosa (D-McAllen) said. “You’re putting most practicing lawyers out of business.”

And state Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), a towering 43-year-veteran of the lege who personifies old-school wheeler-dealer politics as well as anybody currently in office, found himself aghast that Taylor would cast aspersions on state legislators’ keen ethical senses. When state Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas) offered an amendment to prevent elected officials from hiring each other—ultimately killed, 6 to 25—Whitmire erupted at both Huffines and Taylor.

The whole bill was borne out of petty political grievances, Whitmire said, charging that Taylor still wanted to give former state Sen. Wendy Davis grief after last year’s election. And Huffines’ amendment seemed tailored to the case of his one-time primary opponent, former state Sen. John Carona, whose company once counted state Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) on the payroll.

Why would Taylor and Huffines have a vendetta against two lawmakers who are well retired from the lege? Huffines seemed mystified by this assertion. When Whitmire suggested he felt he had a “score to settle,” Huffines replied: “The score was settled when I won.”

But Whitmire was angrier at the aspersions cast on the Senate as a whole. “I think you’ve done a horrible disservice to this outstanding body,” Whitmire said, speaking of the way in which Taylor laid out the bill. Wasn’t he implying, with his attempt to create new ethical guidelines for elected officials, that “we are all crooks?”

“Would you put a face on this for all of us?” Whitmire asked. If Taylor was aware of wrongdoing, “you need to name us.” And then, he added, “run over to the DA’s office.” Otherwise, he said, any suggestion of impropriety at the lege was, in effect, “incriminating outstanding, honest people.”

But though Whitmire felt Taylor’s bill and Huffines’ amendment were classless, he found himself physically “sick to my stomach” thanks to Taylor’s linkage of the Empire State with the Lone Star State. It was highly inappropriate, he said, to put Texas legislators in the same league as “the slime of the New York Legislature.”

After a long late-afternoon delay, state Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) came up with a fix for the debate over lawyer referrals. Although the Texas Government Code already requires referrals to be reported on personal financial statements, she said, “that wasn’t routinely being done.” Her amendment will allow elected officials who are lawyers to continue accepting referral fees, but they will have to report those fees and provide details of the associated court cases.

But remarkably, the compromise wasn’t accepted by Taylor, who felt it was a critical part of his bill and moved to table it. That’s commonplace in the House, but almost never done in the Senate. Even more unusual—Taylor convincingly lost the motion to table, and was forced to swallow Huffman’s provision. Senate leadership, with both Democrats and Republicans on board, effectively railroaded Taylor.

Other successful amendments to the bill will require candidates to disclose the full total of their income from whatever source, including pensions and retirement plans, and to post their personal financial statements online.

And state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. (D-Brownsville) took transparency to the next level with his amendment that would require state elected officials to take a drug test when they file for office and post the results of those tests online. The tests carry no penalty, so officials posting positive drug tests would only incur the wrath of public scrutiny.

The Senate passed the drug-test amendment, but not without some eye rolling. In response to Lucio’s amendment, state Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) suggested he should propose that elected officials also take an IQ test—and maybe test for alcohol abuse as well. Ultimately, mandatory drug tests for elected state officials are probably not even legal. In the 1997 case of Chandler v. Miller, the Supreme Court found that mandatory drug tests of elected officials are unconstitutional, violating the fourth amendment.

All in all, Tuesday’s debate was reminiscent of another Senate tango that took place a little over two years ago. Carona, the former Dallas senator who was replaced by Huffines, found himself trying to wrangle a huge payday lending regulatory effort through the upper chamber. It came to the Senate weak, the product of lengthy negotiations between reformers and the industry—but a miracle happened. Amendments kept getting added to the bill, including several by liberals like Davis and Ellis, strengthening it and its provisions.

But Carona knew what was happening. The bill was tanking. It had become so top-heavy, and so strong against the industry, that it was effectively being killed on the floor, with little chance of future passage. He began acquiescing to the amendments, defeated. He told the chamber: “I just want to go home and feed my cat.”

Taylor seemed to be in a similar mood Tuesday. SB 19 is now an ungainly collection of weak and strong provisions—a mess that House members will have to work to untangle, if they pass it at all. The Senate, apparently amending out of spite, even passed a special amendment to prevent legislators for being paid to serve on bank boards. (Taylor serves on a bank board.)

Is SB 19 on the road to passage? Maybe. Will it be anything close to what the governor wanted when he called for ethics reform? No, almost certainly not. Taylor, Patrick and Abbott insisted they were thrilled with the bill, but one has to wonder how Taylor is feeling about his education in Senate decorum. Maybe he should get a cat.

Bernie Sanders
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, photographed at Serranos restaurant in Austin after a Q&A luncheon with potential donors and supporters of his possible presidential primary run.

 

There’s one question Democrats face as they head into the 2016 presidential election. How should they feel about Hillary Clinton? The coalition Barack Obama built happily came out to vote in his two presidential elections, but turnout was pathetic in 2010 and 2014 when he wasn’t on the ticket. Clinton’s ability to inherit that coalition is debatable.

Some of the party’s faithful just want to maximize their chances of taking a third consecutive term, and they think the Clintons’ careful and calculated brand of center-left politics is the thing to do it. Others are antsy. They’ve seen the GOP’s far right drag their party to them with great success, and they want someone to subject Clinton to the same type of pressures. But they need a candidate. Elizabeth Warren has declined to run, and Martin O’Malley is a ball of ambition.

Enter U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), Congress’ sole self-avowed socialist, who came through Texas at the beginning of April in the middle of a cross-country trip whose purpose, he said, was to judge the energies of the left and to raise money in anticipation of a possible primary run against Clinton. Sanders would be as unusual a candidate as we’ve seen in America for quite some time. He’s not quite a Dennis Kucinich or a Mike Gravel, but it’s not that he’s setting out to win either. His self-proclaimed models are people such as Jesse Jackson and Howard Dean, who ran and lost, but inspired future political activists.

Obama’s 2008 campaign, Sanders told the Observer at an Austin Tex-Mex restaurant, “will go down in history as one of the great campaigns ever run.” But, he continued, “the day after the election, he said, ‘Thank you for electing me, but I think I can go on from here without you. I do not need the millions of people who were actively involved in my campaign.’” The kind of change the left wants, he said, is not possible without “mass organized activity” of the kind that has not existed in the country in some five decades—the kind Sanders experienced as a young man in the civil rights, anti-war and kibbutz movements.

As he talks, he has the feel of a radical giving it one last college try. But his reception in Austin was decidedly warm. In addition to small venues—he spoke to a union hall—he gave the keynote at one of the Travis County Democratic Party’s main annual fundraisers. Outside, his communications director, a silver-haired former Chicago newspaperman who dimly recalls his last trip to Texas some decades ago, marvels at the previous day’s turnout: He calls it a “field of dreams” moment.

Inside, Sanders, with a mishmash accent that’s part Brooklyn and part New England, speaks in front of a giant Texas flag. “The biggest problem this country faces,” he tells the crowd, “is that we don’t talk about our serious problems.” He gives a 20-minute lecture on rising economic inequality, student debt, Wall Street and America’s diminishing middle class. He’s treated to an unusual number of standing ovations for a speech so filled with numbers. It’s not exactly Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America,” but it’s a tune a lot of Democrats will feel pulled to sing along to.

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

Many of us have been the target of bullying, but few of us have been lieutenant governor. Dan Patrick has the misfortune to be both at the same time. Who is bullying the second-most powerful elected official in the great state of Texas, you ask? His peers in state government, says Dan.

By now, you’ve probably heard the story of The Breakfast, as characterized last week by Texas Monthly. At a regularly scheduled weekly breakfast between Patrick, Gov. Greg Abbott, and House Speaker Joe Straus, things got heated: Patrick and Straus confronted each other over long-simmering resentments between the two chambers, and Abbott got up the nerve to ask Patrick about Patrick’s best friends calling Abbott’s pre-K plan godless welfare socialism. Patrick responded, in the only quote that left the room, that the two were “picking on me.”

The confrontation was the subject of feverish speculation through this weekend. Did the tale have substance? Was it fluff? Was Patrick not as weaselly, or the three as far apart, as the story has them?

To some extent, the full picture doesn’t matter: The Breakfast is a perfect #txlege meta-narrative. The highly unflattering story about Patrick had to be given to the media by multiple people with knowledge of the event—certainly from friends of House leadership, and probably from people in the governor’s camp, too—which is itself evidence that things are not going well between the three.

The weekly breakfasts have long been offered by one or another of its participants as evidence that things were going smoothly in the 84th—and that the governor, contrary to an increasingly popular perception around Austin, has a hand in how the Legislature is running. Eggs! Friendship! Fun!

But they’ve been extra-important this session because two of the Big Three are new. Patrick was a highly unknown quantity whose ability to play with others was in question when the session commenced in January. Abbott, who was attorney general before he took the top job, had no experience as a legislator. And would Straus and his team of streetfighters accept the new order?

With a little over a month to go in the session, we’re not much closer to getting a satisfactory resolution on these questions. There are some signs now that the causes of last Wednesday’s tension—the logjam in the House and Senate, and the drama over pre-K—are ebbing a bit. But other fights loom large on the horizon, and the underlying causes of this session’s dysfunction so far have not materially changed.

—Abbott’s out to lunch.

Unlike Rick Perry, who served in the Legislature for six years and had no reluctance about throwing his weight around as governor, no one really knew how Abbott was going to handle the Lege. He’s been making appearances at sporting events and music award shows far from Austin. A gap has opened up between the more moderate-minded guv and his right, giving oxygen to the persistent speculation in Austin that he should worry about a primary challenge in 2018.

When Patrick’s lieutenants—members of his so-called Grassroots Advisory Board—wrote a letter for the world to see that proclaimed one of Abbott’s most important policy priorities straight out of the pits of hell, he had to confront Patrick. Here’s how one person “familiar with the breakfast conservation” spun it to the Texas Tribune:

“I will say this for anyone who’s been wondering where Abbott has been,” said one. “He arrived today.”

This is too little, too late, isn’t it? It’s late April, and we’ve not long to go till Sine Die. The House and the Senate have gotten hopelessly crosswise on issues like their rival tax cut plans that will be very difficult to resolve without one side winning outright. Patrick can rightfully point to the governor’s past statements, like his seeming endorsement of property tax cuts in his State of the State address, as helping to create that confusion. (Patrick has repeatedly attempted to use Abbott’s past tax talk against him.)

Abbott’s priorities, from his university research initiative to the pre-K bills, have gotten batted around like a chew-toy. His ethics reform proposals have been hollowed out, and today one of the most important ethics bills this session was practically turned inside out by a hostile Senate. If the advisor here is suggesting he’s learned his lesson, he’s got a lot of ground to make up for.

—Patrick is still playing games.

Patrick burst into the Lege like Napoleon in a Whataburger drive-thru. He’d whip the place into shape. He set extraordinarily high expectations for himself, and many different sets of expectations as well. He could not possibly live up to them all. So the fight during the next month will be to preserve as much of his program as possible, against a speaker and governor he seems to view as undermining him.

Since Wednesday, Straus has referred a number of Senate bills to committee, and Patrick has done the same with some House bills. Significantly, Patrick referred House Bill 4, the pre-K bill that Abbott wants, to committee. So did the breakfast serve to break the tension? Are things working smoothly again now? Patrick soothingly told the Houston Chronicle he thought there was a less than 20 percent chance of a special session.

But is Patrick really backing down? At the breakfast, reports the Texas Tribune, Abbott emphasized that Patrick shouldn’t take his pre-K plan hostage: He “cautioned the lieutenant governor against holding that pre-K legislation hostage until the House acted on school choice or other bills dear to Patrick.”

The day after The Breakfast, Patrick called Julie McCarty of the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party. She’s one of the most prominent tea party leaders in the state, and she’s on Patrick’s Grassroots Advisory Board—the one that kicked off the pre-K furor early last week. She described his call on her Facebook page. Here’s what she wrote:

From what I can tell, Dan is ok with the pre-k issue because it’s not full day, and it’s less money that it has been previously. Plus for some unknown reason Abbott is obsessed with it. But he believes it needs to be part of a full package deal of education issues.

In other words, Patrick continues to sell the tea party on his support of pre-K by using exactly the framework that Abbott sought to dissuade him from using. How much will he try to get in exchange for letting the guv’s wishlist through?

Patrick says he didn’t know about the pre-K letter that got him in hot water. But it plays into his hands, in a way. Anything he can do to widen the gap between Abbott and the GOP right is good for Patrick. Even if he doesn’t want Abbott’s job, the pressure might force Abbott to the right, too. And now that the distance between Patrick and the governor is clearly established, he might be blamed less by his base for having to pass bills written by the dreaded RINOs.

—The House wants to fight.

The Senate began moving on some smaller House bills last week, and the House began moving on an even smaller number of Senate bills. OK. There are real differences on important bills, but there always are. Much of the hold-up has been over which chamber gets to take credit for authoring bills, and that’s relatively easy to sort out—just divide them up.

But the biggest fight to come will be over tax cuts. Here, it’s very difficult to see a compromise without the other side yielding completely. But the two sides keep raising the stakes, which makes that option more and more unpalatable for the two jousters. Patrick’s team is digging in over his shoddily constructed plan to lower what Texans pay in property taxes by a small amount.

On Saturday, the House GOP caucus sent a message of its own: 90 of the 98 House Republicans signed a letter arguing for the House plan, which would cut sales taxes by an even tinier amount. The missive, unusual in the way that it’s addressed to the public, lays out in a fairly in-depth way why the authors think Patrick’s tax cut plan sucks. (You can read it here.)

The letter is wholly unnecessary—it’s just a way to poke the Senate in the eye. The House hadn’t even passed its tax cut plan yet. (It did on Tuesday, with Speaker Straus himself voting for some of the package’s provisions, a highly unusual gesture.) And the letter was signed by almost every member of the House’s far-right, who might have been expected to side with Patrick. When members of Straus’ leadership team speak—particularly state Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton)—viscous, oily disdain for Patrick seeps to the surface.

Was The Breakfast overhyped? Maybe. But the problems between the Big 3 aren’t just the product of personality quirks, to be worked out over muffins and coffee. They’re the product of ideology. That portends difficulties in the long term—mid-morning snacks or no.

Leticia Van De Putte
Courtesy of leticiaformayor.com

When Leticia Van De Putte ran for Lieutenant Governor, she was beloved by the Texas Democrats. She was a long shot, with a fraction of the resources allocated to her ticket mate Wendy Davis and to her opponent, Dan Patrick. A better retail candidate than either, Van de Putte was forced to rely on free media and a statewide bus tour that never gained much traction. But to her supporters, she furthered her mythic status.

Now, the tables are turned. Shortly after losing the election, Van de Putte dropped off of her longtime perch in the Senate to run for mayor of San Antonio. She’s no longer a fearless underdog: At the beginning of the race, her name recognition and ability to raise money seemed to make her a formidable challenger for the city’s top job—perhaps, for her three opponents, prohibitively so. And yet Van de Putte has struggled mightily, partly because of that dominance.

In the run-up to the May 9 election, likely to result in a runoff, the former state senator fired virtually her entire campaign staff, something campaigns usually avoid at all costs to avoid the perception of panic. But it’s her attempt to play her biggest trump card—using her state campaign account, flush with money from the lieutenant governor race—that’s caused the most consternation in San Antonio.

The Alamo City has fairly strict campaign finance laws for municipal races, including a $1,000 limit on donations from individuals. That’s decidedly unlike laws for statewide races, in which pretty much anything goes. Van de Putte’s opponents—former state Rep. Mike Villarreal, current mayor Ivy Taylor, and county commissioner Tommy Adkisson—have always had to raise money with these restrictions. Villarreal transferred a small amount of money from his statewide account, but took special steps outlined in the law to ensure that the contribution limit was not violated, including sending money past the limit back to his donors.

So when Van de Putte announced in the last week of March that she would be rolling over roughly $300,000 from her statewide account to her municipal campaign, heads turned. That’s a hugely consequential amount of money in the context of a mayoral race, and Van de Putte’s campaign initially declared that it would take none of the steps Villarreal did to ensure strict compliance with San Antonio law. That provoked a lot of bluster from her opponents. Adkisson and Villarreal, generally presumed to be in third and fourth place as the campaign rolls on, held a joint press conference in which an Adkisson strategist called the plan a “money laundering scheme.” Villarreal later filed an ethics complaint.

The bid to drown her opponents in statewide money absolutely violated the spirit, if not the letter, of San Antonio’s campaign finance law, and it became a story in itself. Like many Democrats who were desperate to beat Patrick, Villarreal gave $25,000 to Van de Putte’s lieutenant governor campaign. Was Van de Putte raising money for her statewide account in the closing weeks of her race, when victory was clearly out of her grasp, knowing that she’d use it to run for mayor?

Eventually, Van de Putte retreated under pressure. She would apply the same strict scrutiny Villarreal had used to her own funds. She’ll only be able to use about half of the $300,000 now—still a consequential amount. But the strangely ill-considered attempt poses a question: Is Van de Putte acting from a position of strength, or weakness?

84th Texas legislative session
Cesar Garza via Flickr

We have under six weeks to go in the 84th Legislature, and the House and Senate haven’t really started to grapple with the most substantial areas of disagreement between them.

For a special session to be avoided, the two chambers must quickly reconcile their differences over the budget and pass enough of Gov. Greg Abbott’s priorities for the guv to feel like he won. In case you forgot, Abbott has tasked the Lege with approving ethics reform, tax relief, university research funding, pre-K and transportation funding, all of which are in varying states of trouble.

So, how are things going, anyway?

1) The Senate has been slow to pass bills, but it has been especially slow to pass House bills. State Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton), who effectively speaks for Speaker Joe Straus, has certainly noticed this. And, boy, is he pissed.

On Monday, the Senate passed a big border security package, Senate Bill 3. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and his leadership team chose to pass the Senate bill instead of picking up a similar measure from the lower chamber, House Bill 11, which passed the House all the way back on March 19. If the Senate had taken HB 11 and altered it, the two bodies could have worked out a compromise in conference and been done with it. For whatever reason, Patrick wanted to pass his bill first. Bonnen let loose to the San Antonio Express-News:

“It’s surprising and disappointing that the lieutenant governor wants to play political games with the No. 1 issue in the state of Texas, which is securing the border,” Bonnen said in an interview Tuesday. “It shows the lieutenant governor plays politics with anything and everything.”

Then he did the same to the Texas Tribune. “For some reason, Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor, wants to bring the same bad Washington, always-politically gaming concepts to Austin instead of solving problems,” Bonnen said. “[Patrick] sat and stared at House Bill 11 for 32 days.”

Patrick’s office declined to give a statement to the press. House and Senate leadership frequently take shots at each other—but as the remarks sharpen and the brawl moves into the public eye, it’s something to watch.

2) The Senate is not getting along with the House. How is the Senate getting along with the governor? For months, Patrick has been hugging Abbott with all the force he can muster, in the way you’d only do to your worst enemy. They’re friends, right?

Early in the session, Patrick appointed a grassroots advisory board to help him keep in touch with his base—the Republican primary voters who made him lite guv. Great idea! This motley collection of tea party leaders—JoAnn Fleming, Julie McCarty and Katrina Pierson among them—would chill out to the side and occasionally let Dan know how they felt about big bills. Harmless fun, really.

On Tuesday, they began circulating a letter announcing that they “stand united in strong opposition” to major pre-K bills—House Bill 4 and Senate Bill 801, specifically. (HB 4 passed the House, but the Senate as a whole has taken no action on pre-K yet.) The bills, which contain policy proposals wholeheartedly endorsed by Abbott, were godless monstrosities that had to be killed at any cost, Patrick’s best friends said.

Texas already has plenty of challenges with education (K-12) because of weakened familial bonds in society without the State of Texas encouraging parents to turn their young children over to pre-schools. […] We are experimenting at great cost to taxpayers with a program that removes our young children from homes and half-day religious preschools and mothers’ day out programs to a Godless environment with only evidence showing absolutely NO LONG-TERM BENEFITS beyond the 1st grade.

The letter continues:

The early removal of children from parents’ care is historically promoted in socialistic countries, not free societies which respect parental rights. The Welfare State has resulted in the breakdown of the American family. We need to encourage the formation of strong families, not remove the children from their homes and parents’ care at ever earlier ages.

Patrick’s office told the press he had no idea the letter was coming out. Nonetheless, the advisory board announced itself as representing the lieutenant governor: The tea party activists even mocked up a letterhead with an icon reminiscent of the state seal at the top.

So Patrick’s people are telling him that one of the governor’s top priorities for the session is strictly verboten. If you’re Patrick, what do you do? If you’re the governor, how do you act now to bolster the chances of it passing?

3) What’s our governor up to, anyway? By now, Perry would have locked these guys in a duck blind and passed the bills himself.

Ah, the magic of representative government.

State Rep Phil King
State Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford)

The Legislature took another step closer to emasculating the Public Integrity Unit and devolving its responsibilities to the Texas Rangers and local district attorneys this week. On Tuesday, House Bill 1690, authored by state Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford), passed the lower chamber 95 to 49, on a nearly party-line vote.

similar Senate bill has already passed, making it likely that legislation will reach Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk. It’s the latest installment in a long effort by Republicans to weaken the PIU, which operates out of the district attorney’s office in deep-blue Travis County.

Until Gov. Rick Perry defunded the PIU in 2013, precipitating both this debate and his own indictment at the hands of a special prosecutor, the way to go after members of state government accused of ethical violations was imperfect, but pretty simple. If a servant of the people was up to something shady, you could take it up with the PIU. They could investigate, and sometimes prosecute.

The PIU is perhaps best-known for the Tom DeLay case, which garnered a tremendous amount of ire from Texas Republicans. But most cases of corruption are not especially partisan in nature. For example, when officials in charge of the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) got caught improperly awarding grants, it was the PIU that took the lead, and secured the only conviction to come out of the fiasco.

But now the House and Senate are set to gut the PIU, and substitute a procedure of their own design. The plan legislators are generating is no less imperfect, but it has the additional vice of being a great deal more complicated. King’s bill and its Senate counterpart create a number of variegated pathways for the prosecution of state officials—allowing some state officials to be tried in their home counties, and shunting responsibility for investigating ethical lapses to the Texas Rangers, a law enforcement agency overseen by appointees of the governor.

The complication is part of the design, King told the House in a floor debate on Monday. In the Public Integrity Unit, King said, “we’ve concentrated too much power in one person.” To fix that, “you diffuse that power to as many people as possible.”

But sharing responsibility for prosecutions among several different counter-parties means that there’s also more opportunity to kill or bury a case. For one example of how that might work, Ken Paxton’s admitted violations of state securities law—a potential felony charge—were almost buried by his hometown prosecutor, Collin County DA Greg Willis. A close friend and former business partner of Paxton’s, Willis was apparently ready to sit on Paxton’s case file until the statute of limitations expired this summer, at least until a local grand jury asked for the case file the PIU sent Willis.

King’s plan is better in this regard than the plan adopted by the Senate. King adopted an amendment by state Rep. Chris Turner (D-Ft. Worth) that attempts to force DAs with prior relationships to recuse themselves from ethics cases, and a number of other amendments from Democrats that sought to defend against conflict of interest. The Senate’s plan doesn’t do any of that. But the House version still effectively creates a special new class of defendants, which includes legislators. For them, the law applies differently than it would anyone else.

State officials who break the law have, in the past, been charged in the county where they committed a crime, or in Travis County, which contains the seat of state government. In the future, a first-term governor or state official who breaks the law could find himself charged (or not) by a prosecutor in the county where they last filed to run for office. (After they’ve served one term, they’d presumably live in Travis County and so be tried there—though state Sen. Donna Campbell has proposed a constitutional amendment to allow some state officeholders to live wherever they want.)

Imagine, for the sake of argument, Agriculture Commissioner Rick Perry taking a big, fat bribe in 1992 and being charged by a high-powered legal team in… Haskell County, population ~6,000. It doesn’t seem optimal.

And though ethics cases could hypothetically could be ignored or weakly prosecuted by political allies of legislators and state officials, the opposite could be true, too, as some Democrats pointed out in Monday’s debate. They could also be over-prosecuted by a hometown DA who is a political rival of a legislator. What happens if the Texas Rangers drop a weak criminal case in the lap of a DA whose friend is about to challenge the defendant in a primary or general election?

These questions might never come up. The DAs might prove themselves faultlessly scrupulous defenders of the public interest. But in designing a system to hold elected officials accountable, it makes sense to consider the extreme cases and structural weaknesses that could manifest themselves over time: In rushing to replace the PIU, legislators don’t appear to have given these questions a lot of thought.

When a defendant or plaintiff moves a case to get a friendlier judge or jury hearing it, it’s derisively referred to as “venue shopping.” Right now, a whole system of government is engaging in pre-preemptive venue shopping, and it’s more or less bidness as usual.

What do you call it when the Texas Legislature scraps a decades-old system that aimed to keep crooked pols accountable with a minimum of conflict of interest and replaces it with one that seems to be have been done-up on a dry erase board about an hour beforehand?

Monday.

Dennis Bonnen
State Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton)

Who would have thought the biggest fight of the 84th Legislature would be over cutting taxes, an act normally beloved in the halls of the Capitol? Most of the headlines we’ve seen this session have been over guns, gay rights, the border and vouchers, but as the session comes to a close over the next month and a half, it seems likely that the headlining bout will be over two competing tax cut plans. It’s a showdown that is hugely consequential for the future of the state. And the plans offered by the two chambers seem, for now, irreconcilable.

There was some strangeness around the matter of tax cuts early on, as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott seemed to compete over who would call for the biggest, boldest proposal. Dan Patrick asked for $4 billion initially, so Abbott called for $4.4 billion. The Senate answered with a proposal for $4.6 billion in cuts. All the while, the House budget writers kept mum, leaving room in their early budget proposals for tax cuts, but not producing a detailed plan at first.

The Senate proposal is strangely nonsensical. It chops the franchise tax, which is acceptable to almost all parties at the Lege, even Democrats. But the rest of Patrick’s proposal seems less than ideal. He aims to cut Texans’ property taxes. But the state doesn’t administer property taxes; local jurisdictions do. Patrick’s proposals would reimburse local jurisdictions to some degree, but other Senate proposals would greatly restrict the ability of cities and counties to take in revenue.

So Patrick would get to take credit for cutting taxes now, even though local governments around Texas, which are already swimming in debt and face uncertain fiscal futures, would pay the price. There’s also the fact that to make the math work on his proposal, Patrick wants to allow legislators to circumvent the constitutionally enshrined spending cap to pay for tax cuts, now and in the future…. while also tightening the spending cap to ensure that the state has less money to spend. If that doesn’t make sense to you, that’s because it doesn’t make sense.

The House took its time to respond. But last Wednesday, a top lieutenant of House Speaker Joe Straus, state Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton), released the House tax plan. The lower chamber would cut franchise taxes too, but property tax relief is nowhere to be found. Instead, the House would lower the state sales tax rate from 6.25 percent to 5.95 percent.

Sales taxes are paid by everyone, not just property owners. And cutting the state sales tax doesn’t hurt local jurisdictions in the same way. What’s more, Bonnen and the House gave themselves a trump card—their tax plan totals $4.87 billion, allowing them to cutely claim that Patrick wants “smaller tax cuts.” Bonnen’s plan will have public testimony on Tuesday morning at the House Committee on Ways and Means meeting.

Neither tax cut package will mean much to the average Texan—certainly not compared to the size of the hole it blows in the state budget. The property tax cuts might mean about $200 a year for the average homeowner. But if you don’t pay property taxes—if you live in an apartment, for example—you get nothing.

Bonnen, meanwhile, boasts that the sales tax cut could mean $172 a year for “a family of four.” If that savings comes only from the reduced sales tax the family pays at stores, it assumes that the family of four is spending $57,000 on taxed goods every year, which is just a little bit less than the median total income of a four-person family in Texas.

To be fair, Bonnen’s analysis probably also assumes the family will save money from cheaper goods and services as a result of the business-side implications of the tax. Big businesses are the main beneficiaries of a sales tax cut, though its advocates would say the savings will get passed on to you.

To put it a different way, under the House plan, you’ll save 30 cents with each purchase of $100 of taxable goods. For every $1,000 of stuff you buy, then, you’ll be able to afford three hours of parking in downtown Austin. Oh happy day!

But the efficacy of these plans is beside the point—the fight has become a measuring contest of the virility of each chamber. Patrick slammed Bonnen’s plan, which he said in an unusually cutting statement was “out of step with Texans, my office, the Senate and the Governor.” He noted that Abbott had called for property tax relief in his State of the State speech and implied Abbott was on his side in this dispute, continuing his habit of putting words in the governor’s mouth, which is surely appreciated by Abbott’s team. (On Thursday, Abbott spoke briefly about tax cuts in Houston but said nothing specific on the issue of property vs. sales tax cuts.)

During a TV interview, Bonnen punched back. “It’s not my role to say what the governor thinks about tax cuts. Respectfully, it’s not the lieutenant governor’s either,” he said. Why was Patrick so focused on property taxes? “I think he’s just concerned about campaign promises he’s made,” said Bonnen.

How does this get resolved? Big business is steadfastly behind the House plan, while Patrick’s base loathes property taxes. Patrick and state Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), who runs the Senate Finance Committee, show no sign of backing down. “I have never had a constituent tell me they want a cut in sales tax—ever,” Nelson told reporters. “I’ve had lots of constituents come and complain about property taxes.”

Patrick can’t retreat completely from his property tax plan—he’s too far in. And, moreover, he needs a big and flashy signature accomplishment for his first session. He came in with too much bluster, and with too many promises made to the people who elected him, to leave the session with a few smaller education bills, and some money for border security wrestled from the House. This was a man who, in his inaugural address, promised to “secure the border in this session” and invoked the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. to sell the changes he wants to make to state government. One imagines him staring intently at a full bathtub, attempting to part the waters with his mind.

Whatever his future plans are, he needs a trophy come June. And at this point, the best candidate for that trophy is a tax plan that doesn’t do much for most Texans, blows a giant hole in the budget of state and local governments, and requires trick budget math to pull off. Go figure, right? And the House is doubling down in its efforts to keep it from him with bad policy of its own.

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

There are only 52 days until the 84th legislative session, in all its 140-day glory, bids us farewell. That’s less time than it sounds. In a little over a month, the final set of bill deadlines will begin to set in, choking any bills that haven’t already gathered momentum.

So how have the two chambers of the Legislature been performing so far? According to an analysis of the Lege through the 83rd day of session conducted by the Professional Advocacy Association of Texas, an association of lobbyists, the Senate has been unusually unproductive these last few months.

PAAT tallied up the bills that have made it past certain benchmarks in the legislative process—voted out of committee, for example—and compared the results to the same point in the last legislative session. It turns out that the House is working at about the same pace as it always has. In 2013, 364 House bills had been voted out of their committees by the 83rd day. This year, 362 had.

But Dan Patrick’s Senate, meanwhile, is moving as slow as molasses. In 2013, the upper chamber had moved 432 bills from committees to the floor. This year, only 229 bills have made the jump, a 47 percent decrease.

The House only passed eight bills by the 83rd day this session, as opposed to 10 in 2013. But the Senate had passed 276 by that point last session—whereas only 98 passed this year, a whopping 64 percent decrease.

Both chambers have plenty of time to advance their agendas over the next month, so why is this significant? It quantifies something notable about the Senate, which is that its performance hasn’t lived up to the expectations Patrick set for it. He barreled into office with a tremendous amount of energy. He’d bring next-generation super-duper conservatism to the masses in short order. During his inauguration, he patted his predecessors on the back for the many fine things they’d done “over the last 12 years since taking the majority. But it’s time to take it to the next level.” He told reporters and the public that the slow pace set by David Dewhurst was a thing of the past.

He trumpeted his rapid appointment of committee chairs as evidence he was getting the ball rolling quickly. Here’s what the Texas Tribune’s Ross Ramsey wrote about Patrick’s attempt to quicken the chamber’s pace at the time:

Naming committees quickly would give the Senate a head start on the House, perhaps setting up a flow of Senate bills to the lower chamber before the House is ready to send anything back.

It’s inside baseball, but it’s important: Legislators actually care whether a law resulted from a Senate bill or a House bill, even if hardly anyone else notices. More importantly, in the back-and-forth interplay of the two legislative chambers, an early start on the Senate side could pressure the House to get going on the upper chamber’s legislation — a subtle way of positioning the Senate’s agenda in front of the House’s own plans.

This was doubtless what Patrick intended, but roughly the opposite has happened. Patrick’s demolition of the two-thirds rule means that Democrats have no incentive to play along, so they’ve been dragging their feet and using delaying tactics. The Senate Republican caucus has been unsteady, with divisions between fire-starting freshmen and the few remaining senior statesmen. The House, by and large, has set the agenda. Patrick is making David Dewhurst look like Bob Bullock.

One easy rejoinder to this would be that the number of bills passed doesn’t reflect how much Patrick has actually advanced his agenda, but he doesn’t have much to show on that front either. The items he set out during his election campaign as his top priorities—he used to say eliminating in-state college tuition for undocumented Texans would be the first thing he’d do, for example—have mostly fallen by the wayside. (Yes, the bid to repeal in-state tuition got a hearing, but faced with strong opposition and little time left in the session, it’s almost certainly dead.)

Speaker Joe Straus’ House is a particularly unreceptive place for the policies Patrick most favors, and there’s not much he can do about it. To take another example: He’s put a great deal of emphasis on school choice in his years of public service, but vouchers are probably dead this session, too, and furthermore he seems to know it.

Instead, Patrick has spent a lot of energy on an incomprehensible tax cut plan, which faces an uncertain future and derision from both Democrats and Republicans. He’s been forced to push for bills, like open and campus carry, that he doesn’t seem to care much about personally.

There’s also the budget, the most important product of any legislative session. Last session, the Senate budget, skillfully shepherded by former state Sen. Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands), passed out of the Senate Finance Committee by March 13 and was passed by the full Senate on March 20. This session’s Senate budget is… Well, where is it?

State Sen. Jane Nelson, the finance chair, last aired the Senate’s budget proposal (Senate Bill 2) on March 26. On Wednesday, she sent a budget proposal to the Senate floor by altering the House budget proposal (House Bill 1), which arrived in her committee after the lower chamber passed it last week. Next week, probably on Tuesday, April 14, the full Senate will consider the budget for the first time, almost a month behind last session’s pace.

All this is hardly fatal, and the Senate’s say in the budget process isn’t really affected by whether the House or the Senate’s budget bill is used. But it’s a sign that Patrick is letting happen exactly the thing he swore he’d prevent—he said he never understood why the Legislature let the calendar get so heavy on the back end. Now, presumably, he does.

There’s another possible consequence of the slow pace: the dreaded special session. The 83rd Legislature had three special sessions, at a time when everything was working pretty smoothly. Granted, the special sessions were in part caused by Gov. Perry’s desire to fight about social issues; Gov. Abbott doesn’t seem similarly inclined. It’s entirely possible Patrick and Straus tie up their differences with a neat bow by June 1. But what might the Legislature not get done by sine die?

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.
Christopher Hooks
Ken Paxton, after being sworn in, stands among Texas GOP VIPs: From left to right, Gov.-elect Greg Abbott, Sen. Ted Cruz, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Justice Don Willett, and Gov. Rick Perry.

On Wednesday night, news broke that a Collin County grand jury is exploring anew Attorney General Ken Paxton’s potential legal improprieties—another milestone in his declining fortunes. For the last few months, Paxton had seemed to have gotten away with it.

First, he had managed the spectacular task of getting elected to the top law enforcement job just months after admitting to violating securities law by shunting his legal clients into shady financial deals, then getting a kickback, without telling them about it. That was the easy part. (He’s a Republican; it’s Texas.)

But if someone were to simply indict him for the crime that he had apparently admitted to committing, he would likely be charged with a felony. No sweat, right? Paxton is not even a ham sandwich—he’s the lowest of low-hanging fruit. A prosecutor would just have to reach out and pluck him. But in late January, Paxton got an even bigger break. The Travis County District Attorney’s Public Integrity Unit—the ethics watchdog that Republicans are convinced is out to get them at all costs—politely declined the case.

The PIU prosecutor said that only the district attorneys in Collin and Dallas counties, where Paxton was active at the time he allegedly violated the law, had the jurisdiction to charge him. Both Republicans, the DAs seem exceptionally unlikely to go after Paxton. Dallas DA Susan Hawk’s office has been barely functional amid a series of weird personal dramas, and Collin DA Greg Willis is a long-time best friend of Paxton’s—they’re former business partners, and supported each other’s election bids. If you go to Willis’ website, Paxton is still listed as heading up the host committee to one of Willis’ last big fundraisers.

So like the ill-fated villain of a noir, Paxton had arrived at the moment of false confidence that bad guys always reach right before the hammer comes down. After an election season in which his spokespeople were literally manhandling reporters to keep them from asking questions—any questions at all—of the big man, Paxton had something of a coming-out party. He was feted by GOP royalty, without reservations, at his inauguration. In February, he appeared with Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and U.S. Senator Ted Cruz at a high-profile Obama bashfest. He even wrote a column for Bill Buckley’s old rag.

If everyone on the GOP team just kept quiet, Paxton would be fine, and in four to eight years he’d move on to higher office. And it seemed initially like that’s how it would play out. When Craig McDonald, the head of the left-leaning accountability group Texans for Public Justice, tried to follow up with Willis’ office on the information on Paxton sent by the PIU, he says he “got the clear sense from Willis’ spokesman that our stuff was going straight into the paper shredder.” (Willis’ office didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

Which is why three events in the last week have come as such a surprise. The first came last Thursday, when the editorial board of the Dallas Morning News called for Willis to seek the appointment of a special prosecutor to look into Paxton’s history. “The state’s top law enforcer, Attorney General Ken Paxton, also happens to be an admitted law breaker,” the editorial began. It continued:

These are not nitpicky issues. State securities law imposes registration requirements to protect the public from victimization by investment frauds and scams.

The fact that Paxton violated the law repeatedly over several years suggests a troubling pattern unbecoming of the esteemed office he now holds. That’s why an independent prosecutor needs to assume control of this case.

Then, on Friday, state Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) told the Houston Chronicle that he thought the case warranted more attention:

“How is going back to your home county and having a friend and business associate handling your prosecution better?” Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, said. “I think it’s a clear case for a special prosecutor.”

Republicans are generally very good at tribal loyalty, but many serious GOPers can’t be happy with the fact that one of their most important statewide elected officials is so ethically challenged. (Though amid the ensuing firestorm, Seliger told one Lubbock radio station he’d been talking in hypotheticals.)

Seliger was also talking about Senate Bill 10, an attempt by state Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) to gut the PIU by routing ethics investigations through the Texas Rangers—run by an appointee of the governor—and ultimately to the hometown prosecutors of elected officials. It would be a grotesque way to do business, because many legislators have friendly relationships with their county DAs, just like Paxton does. SB 10 would take the most bizarre and screwed-up part of the Paxton saga so far and replicate it all over the state.

Seliger and state Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler) held up the bill over a proposal that the AG’s office play a role in ethics investigations—letting Paxton guard the henhouse. But once that was stripped, the two dropped their objections. On Wednesday, SB 10 passed the Senate along party lines, 21 to 10.

During the debate, state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) outlined a hypothetical scenario that mirrored the case of Paxton and Willis. Would Huffman, who used to work in the office of the Harris County DA, think it appropriate for the Willis-like figure to step aside and urge the appointment of a special prosecutor? Huffman answered that if she were the DA, “I would recuse myself.” But her bill would force more and more local DAs into that position, where not all might have Huffman’s sense of ethical responsibility.

But just a few hours after the Senate debate concluded, the Houston Chronicle broke word that Willis might not have to ask for a special prosecutor after all. A Collin County grand jury had gone rogue, in part, perhaps, because of the public attention conjured by the Dallas Morning News and others. The grand jury appeared to be circumventing Willis. They requested the information forwarded to his office by the PIU—the information Willis seemed intent to ignore.

“Collin County appears to be the venue where this evidence needs to be heard,” says the letter from the grand jury vice foreman. “Therefore, we are requesting the documents be sent to us as soon as possible.”

Once the grand jury hears the evidence in Paxton’s case, an indictment seems more likely than not.

“This case is absurd because Paxton has already admitted to a crime with Texas regulators,” says McDonald. His admission of guilt, passed off by his consultants during the election as the end of the matter, “in no way adjudicates his potential felony criminal behavior.” As a reminder of the surreal nature of the fact that he may not be prosecuted for a crime which he has apparently admitted to committing, McDonald says, he keeps Paxton’s “signed confession” on his desk.

Editor’s note: This story has been edited to remove a questionable historical reference in the original version.