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Hooks on Politics

gay marriage rally
Gay marriage rally in Houston, Texas.


Did you know that Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, and Senate Republicans, oppose gay marriage? If you didn’t know before, you do now. There’s proof: It’s called Senate Resolution 1028, offered by state Sen. Kelly Hancock. Here’s part of it:

WHEREAS, Traditional marriage is the bedrock institution

of both our society and the success Texas has been blessed to

experience since our admission as the 28th state within these

United States of America; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That the Senate of the State of Texas, 84th

Legislature, Regular Session, hereby affirm the preservation of

the present definition of marriage as being the legal union of

one man and one woman as husband and wife and pledge to uphold and

defend this principle that is so dearly held by Texans far and wide.

The resolution was written, introduced and passed last night, circumventing the normal procedure for bringing up bills and resolutions. It’s signed by every GOP senator, and Patrick too.

The resolution has no significance and no effect—it carries exactly as much weight as Senate Resolution 997, recognizing March 26, 2015 as John Wayne Day. The House GOP caucus did the same thing a few weeks ago after House Bill 4105 died, except theirs was only a letter. It’s the kind of thing people do when they’re losing, and they know that they’re losing and they want to show somebody that they tried.

They’re losing because it seems almost a certainty that gay marriage is coming to Texas soon, and they’re losing because polls show the public is changing its mind on the issue. They’re losing because all of the anti-LGBT bills carried died this session.

But Patrick is also losing here. He and conservatives like to blame the House for failing to pass socially conservative bills, particularly ones to do with abortion and gay rights. But he doesn’t have a lot of success to show in this department either. In recent days, he’s tried to inject language from dead House bills and initiatives into Senate bills. All of them have failed.

When state Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) attempted to add an amendment to a bill that mirrored an amendment state Rep. Scott Sanford (R-McKinney) once hoped to add to a House bill, establishing the right of religiously affiliated child welfare agencies to discriminate against gay couples, it was easily knocked down on a point of order. There was talk on the Senate floor last night that language from a dead House bill that would prohibit insurance plans from covering abortions would be added to another of Campbell’s bills, but it never came up.

One fight in particular precipitated last night’s resolution. State Sen. Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville) added the anti-gay marriage language from HB 4105 into a totally innocuous bill by state Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston).

When the language was discovered—it had been effectively hidden—it caused an uproar. Coleman pledged to kill his own bill if the language stayed in.

In last night’s “debate” over the resolution, Lucio, a passionate pro-life Catholic, rose to give a personal speech about his own convictions. “From our bibles, we learn of one man and one woman,” he said. “For me, nothing is more sacred than our biblical teachings.” The institution of marriage came from Jesus himself, and cheapening it was sacrilege. “By now, everybody knows how this senator from the Rio Grande Valley feels,” he told the chamber.

Nonetheless, he’d had a change of heart. He wouldn’t be signing the resolution, and he’d be withdrawing Coleman’s poor bill.

Patrick, who’d been listening to Lucio intently and rocking in his chair, stood to speak. With clasped hands, he told the chamber he’d given Lucio an ultimatum. If he tried to strip the anti-gay language out again, Patrick wouldn’t let the bill come to the floor. But Lucio had made his decision.

So, having been deprived of the chance to approve the strong, consequential language from HB 4105, senators drafted last night’s resolution on the fly. While it was being debated, the text of the resolution hadn’t even been uploaded to the Capitol website. The resolution was approved quickly. The thin document is the only real say-so the Legislature will have on the issue before the U.S. Supreme Court decision this summer.

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?

Rep. Byron Cook
State Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana)

It was supposed to be one of Gov. Greg Abbott’s first signature initiatives: ethics reform. What a fine way to signal the beginning of a new era, one washed of that Paint Creek musk. Ethics, it is generally held, are good. Reform? Even better. People love Ethics Reform.

There was never a great deal of substance to Abbott’s outline of what constituted cleaning up Texas politics. And the lawmakers who hammered out the details didn’t exactly reach for the stars either. As it unfolded during the session, Ethics Reform started to seem like it was more about political positioning than a substantive attempt to attack political corruption. But that didn’t much matter. The point was to Get Something Done.

We’re a few steps closer to mission accomplished. On Tuesday, nearing the end of a brutal death-march through the Legislature, Senate Bill 19, the main package of new ethics laws, limped to a preliminary House vote of 96 to 48.

It was in dubious shape when it left the Senate floor a few weeks back—some of its key provisions were gutted against its authors’ wishes in the upper chamber, and the bill was stuffed with petty and silly amendments. And the sweeping changes made to the House version, including provisions to bring transparency to political machines that run on so-called “dark money,” make it unlikely that a strong draft of SB 19 will make it to the governor’s desk in time—the House and Senate versions are so far apart that a conference committee would essentially have to write a third bill from scratch, one that might not have much in the way of teeth.

In an extremely strong statement, the bill’s author, state Sen. Van Taylor (R-Plano), “expressed astonishment for the elimination of meaningful ethics reforms” and faulted “Chairman Bryon Cook” [sic] for “one of those head shaking moments” that tore “a page from Hillary Clinton’s playbook.”

The debate in the House was, in effect, a proxy war between conservative moneyman Tim Dunn and House Speaker Joe Straus, between the House and the Senate, between the governor and the Legislature, and between House Democrats and the clock.

The bill’s dark money disclosure rules—the most significant addition Rep. Byron Cook made to the bill in committee—represent a threat to conservatives aligned with the wing of the Republican party associated with Midland moneyman Tim Dunn, who have been extremely vocal about denouncing the bill. Once a weak version of the bill emerged from the Senate, they seemed to know what was coming. The agitprop machine went into action—if Cook “repeal[ed] the First Amendment” by demanding shadow groups like Empower Texans disclose their donors, he would be tanking the bill. That didn’t stop him.

State Rep. Matt Rinaldi (R-Irving), a legislator backed by Dunn’s groups, offered an amendment that would return the bill to the Senate draft and kill the dark money rule—but he lost his vote 113-33.

By forcing a dark money disclosure rule through the House—and in the process, killing bills offered by further-right conservatives—Cook was, in effect, giving the middle finger to Dunn and his groups. They’ve hated Cook all session, and their contempt has only seemed to grow. As the chairman of House State Affairs, Cook has probably done more to kill bad right-wing bills than any other House Republican. Now, Cook gave them a reply.

Those conservatives have been raging over the idea that Cook “killed” Abbott’s prized ethics bill, by turning it into something that could not meet Senate approval in time before the end of the session. The Senate GOP, much more aligned with the faction railing against Cook, will almost certainly not let the dark money rule through. But they too deserve a share of the blame.

The version of the bill that escaped the Senate was weak, and became a plaything during floor debate. Senators inserted provisions just to mess with each other as individuals. One successful amendment would require legislators to undergo drug tests. The draft that left the upper chamber was a joke—and though Abbott praised the bill, he had no real reason to do so.

Now, the ethics bill will face a conference committee to resolve difference between the House and Senate, but the two versions are planets apart. There’s less than a week to close the gap and hand the governor something. Given Taylor’s militant statement, it seems doubtful they will.

Abbott made ethics one of his top five priorities for the session, but he probably didn’t have this fight in mind. If the bill doesn’t pass at all, will it be enough for him to call a special session? Or will he declare victory and move on if the bill passes in an emaciated form? Lesson learned: Legislators don’t much like binding themselves with additional rules and requirements. And in the absence of a serious scandal, strong ethics reform might not be possible—at least, certainly not without direction and a strong push from the governor. That was lacking here.

It did, however, give Democrats a chance to fight against the clock. At midnight, some of their most hated bills would die. They talked and talked and debated amendments to the bill. By the time debate on SB 19 ended, more than 100 amendments had been filed on legislation authorizing concealed handguns on college campuses. Though Republicans used a procedural maneuver to force a vote on campus carry, several other significant bills died, including legislation banning private insurance coverage of abortion and another measure to tighten the state’s spending cap.

So on one of the last long nights of the 84th Legislature, Cook walked away with a bill that serves as a strong statement about his displeasure with the current state of GOP intra-party politics. And in his wake, more dead bad bills. But if it’s strong, meaningful ethics reform you want, you’ll probably be waiting till next session.

Jonathan Stickland

Most normal, God-fearing Texans spent their Memorial Day weekend barbecuing (indoors), watching Netflix and honoring—if only between kegstands—the fallen.

What did Texas legislators do for Memorial Day weekend, apart from debating whether to cut education benefits for veterans? Bickering about abortion, mostly. An odd sequence of events at the Capitol, culminating in a near-fistfight on the House floor, turned Sunday into a pretty good day for pro-choice activists. (That is, of course, relatively speaking.)

Though one major package of abortion restrictions is likely to win final approval in the next week, another significant anti-abortion initiative is dead and a third could meet the same fate Monday, victim of a legislative logjam in the House.

That’s strange in part because Sunday had been expected to be a day of abortion showdowns, in both chambers. State Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford), a loud but hapless champion of conservative principles and himself a former fetus, issued yet another ultimatum to the RINOs: He’d drop an amendment to prevent abortions in the case of severe fetal abnormalities after 20 weeks gestation, if House leadership allowed Senate Bill 575, a held-up effort to ban insurance providers in the state from covering abortions, to move forward.

It was a Mexican standoff—but as it turned out, one in which both bandit’s guns were pointed in the same direction. Stickland and his pro-life allies seem to have gotten very little.

Why did Stickland make the trade? It’s not entirely clear.

If Stickland had gone on to raise the amendment, it likely would have passed—Republican lawmakers find it very difficult to vote against pro-life initiatives, even if they don’t much like how they’ve been offered. Trading a probable win for a tenuous promise that SB 575 would advance seemed like a weak plan.

Whatever he was thinking, Stickland got Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana), a senior Republican who chairs House State Affairs and has become one of the foremost bête noires of conservatives this session, to agree to vote SB 575 out of committee and push it to the Calendars Committee, which decides what gets heard on the House floor. Stickland withdrew his amendment, and the Health and Humans Services Commission sunset bill, the potential vehicle for the amendment, passed without the pro-life language in it.

Jonathan Stickland - former fetus signStickland had released his hostage. But when SB 575 got to calendars, it face-planted. Three Republicans—Rep. Sarah Davis (R-West University Place), Rep. Patricia Harless (R-Spring), and Rep. Debbie Riddle (R-Tomball)—voted with the Democrats to prevent the bill from being scheduled for a vote. Davis is a vocally pro-choice Republican, but the other two are very, very not.

It was a surprise, and pro-lifers were absolutely livid. Here’s what Byron Cook told the Texas Tribune:

“My commitment was to get the bill out [of State Affairs], to get it to Calendars,” Cook said. “I did everything I could do. What I can’t do is interfere with other members’ free will to vote their conscience. Everybody should be able to do that. And women sent a clear message that they weren’t comfortable with this legislation, probably weren’t comfortable with us men telling them what to do. And I respect that.”

Stickland and the pro-lifers had been comprehensively defeated. His reaction, naturally, was to confront Cook on the floor, yelling at him. The two men had to be separated. (Stickland’s account of the encounter, in which he is assaulted by a bullying Cook, can be found here.)

Then, near midnight, the Calendars Committee seemed to reverse itself. At a quickly-scheduled meeting, Riddle and Harless switched votes, sending SB 575 to the floor. So the pro-lifers won after all, right? Stickland certainly thought so:

Well, maybe. SB 575 could still pass. Anything is possible. But because it was added to the calendar so late, it seems very possible it will never come to a vote. Tuesday at midnight is the deadline for Senate bills to pass the House. SB 575 has been slotted as the fourth of four items on that day’s major state portion of the House daily calendar. It’s easy to imagine it not making it out by the midnight deadline.

At this point, it’s possible for the Democrats to talk and delay until the calendar is chewed up—that’s what happened with the anti-gay House Bill 4105 a few weeks back. Successful points of order are lethal, because there’s not enough time to send bills back to committee and fix them. And when senior Republicans tack a bill on the end of a calendar like this, especially this close to a deadline, they’re effectively declaring that they don’t really care about it.

Tuesday’s House calendar is packed with potentially complicated and lengthy debates—it could be one of the most fascinating days of the session. On Tuesday, the House will debate the gutting of the Public Integrity Unit—part of the significant amount of postponed business the House didn’t get around to Monday. That’ll eat up a lot of time. Then when we move on to Senate Bill 19, an extremely convoluted and controversial ethics overhaul that will also take a lot of time if debated.

Next up are four items that involve lengthy debates. The only must-pass bill is the first one, the Department of Family Protective Services sunset bill, Senate Bill 206. There’s Senate Bill 9, a proposal to change the spending cap favored by Senate conservatives. Expect a lot of debate there. And then, there’s Senate Bill 11—campus carry. That could well be one of the most heated debates of the session, with a lot of uncertainty about how the House will react to certain provisions.

If lawmakers finish all that, then it’s SB 575’s turn. They could certainly still get around to it, and Tuesday will be a day of high drama on the House floor—must-see TV. But on Sunday morning, it was at least hypothetically possible that two sweeping new abortion restrictions could make it the governor’s desk. Now it seems more likely that neither will. Well-fought, fellows.

A large gun
megan ann/Flickr

Friday’s Senate debate over the licensed open carry of handguns was supposed to be so easy.

Open carry, for all its detractors, had been one of the most fêted issues facing the 84th Legislature, passed pretty early in the session by both chambers. But after the House and Senate open carry bills became hostages of a protracted budget debate, it fell to the upper chamber to pass House Bill 910, the lower chamber’s open carry bill, in the last days of the session.

Much of the debate followed the script: Democrats offered amendments, and those amendments were voted down. Then, things went off the rails.

State Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas) offered an amendment that would prohibit police officers from stopping someone solely because they are visibly carrying a handgun. One Democrat, state Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), and a handful of senior Republicans, began talking in an effort to kill the amendment. But they failed, after an unusually heated and unscripted debate, especially by Senate standards. Huffines won a 19-to-12 vote on his proposal, thanks to an extremely unusual coalition of Democrats and tea party senators. And eight hours after the debate began, the Senate passed HB 910 by the same margin.

Don Huffines
Don Huffines

Under Huffines’ amendment, if a law enforcement officer sees a man with a gun walking down the street, the officer can’t ask the man for verification that he’s carrying the gun legally unless the man is also breaking another law. Opponents say the provision amounts to de facto unlicensed open carry. Law enforcement organizations have fiercely opposed it, saying the inability to determine whether someone is carrying a weapon legally poses a lethal threat to them and the public.

But some on the right say the fact that a person is carrying a gun shouldn’t give a police officer the right to compel identification, since carrying a gun is not necessarily an illegal act. And Democrats, particularly those with large minority constituencies, fear giving police officers more pretext to detain citizens. The Huffines amendment mirrored a provision originally added to HB 910 as it passed in the House, authored by state Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) and state Rep. Matt Rinaldi (R-Irving). The House amendment passed easily, 133 to 10.

But when the bill came to the Senate, Dutton and Rinaldi’s provision was stripped from the bill as it went through committee. Huffines’ bid to put it back seemed to seriously unnerve a number of senators, including those who had fought for open carry early on, like state Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls), the bill’s sponsor, and state Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), the chair of the Senate Committee on State Affairs, which initially gave the high sign to this session’s gun bills.

The heated debate pitted two unusual bipartisan coalitions against each other, starring an angry Whitmire and a cutting Huffman, who both grilled Huffines at length about his amendment, charging that the measure would have fatal consequences for police. Huffines did not seem particularly prepared for the fight. At one point, he falsely claimed his amendment had the support of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, bringing an immediate rebuke from the organization on Twitter, which Whitmire raised on the floor.

“Why won’t you listen to the people who put their lives on the line every day for us?” Whitmire asked a generally quiet Huffines. “We are really playing with a dangerous matter. It’s not something that we can afford to be wrong about.”

But as Huffines fumbled easy questions about his bill, he leaned heavily on support from state Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) and state Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), two of the more liberal senators in the chamber. Ellis said his group of allies on the amendment vote was “the strangest bed I have ever slept in.”

They prevailed. The Senate bill, with the cop-limiting amendment in it, will head back to the House for a final vote. If they concur with the Senate changes, the bill will go straight to the governor’s desk. If they don’t, for whatever reason, there could be trouble ahead for the bill.

Huffines has long desired to pass constitutional carry, which would allow individuals to carry handguns openly and without a license. This amendment, as many opposing senators pointed out, was an excellent way to accomplish that goal. If cops aren’t allowed to stop individuals openly carrying guns to ask for proof of their license, why would anyone need to carry a license? It was, it seemed, a great victory for the gun-rights crowd.

Huffman warned of future consequences. “This is a mistake, and I think it’s a mistake the state of Texas will come to regret,” she said. “I was raised with guns, I was raised with hunting. I believe in it. But I believe in some social order, too.”

But as the Senate was wrapping last night, a tweet from Gov. Abbott seemed to call into question the future of the bill as currently drafted. After the lengthy debate over whether the bill would put officers at risk, Abbott seemed to weigh in:


Abbott has been getting pressure from law enforcement groups who are nervous about this open carry bill. Was this empty signaling, or was it intended as a warning? Could there be a last-ditch attempt in the coming days to strike Huffines’ hard-won amendment?

tax cuts

Texans, you can put down your pitchforks and douse your torches: The edibles you’ve squirreled away in your emergency bunkers can be safely consumed. Life can begin anew. The tax cut war between House and Senate has been resolved, which means that barring a catastrophic screw-up—say, Comptroller Glenn Hegar realizing he misplaced a decimal point in the revenue estimate—we won’t need that special session on budget issues that legislative observers and hack journalists have worried you all about so much.

Is the package—a $3.8 billion dollar bundle of franchise and property tax cuts—any good? Well, that depends on your point of view. Most everyone, save some Democrats and probably a few right-wing senators, is about to tell you, loudly, that the budget deal is very, very good. There’s a great deal of face-saving to be done. This is the point of the session at which former enemies congratulate each other for the finest and most noble works of government since Periclean Athens: Patrick himself posited that this might have been the best legislative session in the state’s history.

The business lobby did pretty well in the tax deal, but the picture is a bit more complicated for most of the other players. The widespread perception outside the Capitol will be that Patrick “won” by getting some property tax cuts past the House. Meanwhile, Texans are getting a raw deal—with too small a tax break to make a real difference for most, and less money coming down the pike now and in the future for basic services like education.

The deal hasn’t been finalized quite yet, but here’s what we know so far: The two chambers have agreed on a 25 percent cut to the franchise tax. The huge property tax deal Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick bet nearly all of his chips on this session is dead, and in return for its death the House has agreed to a fixed increase in the property tax homestead exemption—from $15,000 to $25,000—which is smaller than Patrick’s original proposal.

The deal lets Patrick save face after abandoning his all-or-nothing approach to his property tax plan. But some of the key provisions that Patrick’s conservative backers most wanted, like tying the homestead exemption to median home values, are gone.

Did he, in the vulgar language of the Capitol, “win”? That depends on what you think the game was. If Patrick’s goal was to provide any kind or flavor of property tax “relief,” he succeeded. But the stakes here were always higher for Patrick than they were for the House.

Privately, many in the lower chamber didn’t really believe in a future for their plan, except as a negotiating tool to curb Patrick’s ambitions. When you take into account the different goals for the two chambers, it is harder to say who came out on top. The House won franchise tax cuts that the business lobby liked more than those offered by the Senate. By offering a larger overall tax cut plan than Patrick did, the House deprived Patrick of the political ammunition of claiming the House was standing in between you and cutting your property taxes. It’s very difficult for legislators to stand against property tax cuts, which are essentially political heroin, and yet they found an effective way to do so.

Patrick wanted and needed a signature victory for this session, his first. After all this furor, Patrick is likely to win for his constituents a smaller-than-expected tax break that most Texas homeowners—the people whom Patrick is expecting to give him credit—won’t even notice, because they’ll be swallowed up by rising rates and home values. Average homeowners might pay about $120 less in property taxes than they might have otherwise, but how many will notice or care as their taxes continue to go up? The only thing that can bend the property tax curve downward is a substantive reorganization of the state’s overall tax structure. Anything else is a band-aid, and not a long-lasting one at that.

It’s not really the stuff that launches political careers skyward. Some of Patrick’s supporters have said the Legislature can rededicate itself to real property tax reform next session, but that seems doubtful. The economy will likely have cooled, and the state may face a budget hole thanks to the school finance lawsuit and other looming budget issues. This session may have been the last, best opportunity to do a big tax cut deal.

If you think Patrick’s original plan stunk, you should be grateful to the House for somehow convincing him to abandon what was his biggest priority, one he kept doubling down on. And in the course of the standoff, the size of the offered tax plan, which at one point had almost reached $5 billion, has shrunk down to $3.8 billion. That’s a sizeable chunk of change the state will need in the 2017 session, or the next special session, when it’s likely to need it very badly.

But there’s still an opportunity cost to going along with even the small property tax cut. In the draft of the budget released by the conference committee Wednesday afternoon, a package of additional money that the House had attempted to allocate to public education had been scaled back from $2.2 billion to $1.5 billion. It cannot be said enough that Texas has not returned to the same level of investment in public services, particularly education, that it had before the last recession.

These are supposed to be flush times, when we store up our surplus and make prudent investments before the next winter. That’s fiscal conservatism. Instead, we’re ensuring that when hard times come again—as they inevitably will—the cuts we’ll have to make will cut even deeper. It’s a fundamentally reckless way to run the state.

texas tea party

The 2014 election cycle was the most rousing success the conservative wing of the Republican party has ever had in Texas, and the 84th Legislature is that election’s child. How do the people who made that victory happen feel about their session?

They are not pleased:

As sine die approaches, we recall the hours spent knocking on doors and making calls for candidates who promised government reforms that would make Texas a national leader in limited government and a true champion of liberty.

We remember every single rhetorical flourish that promised Texas would have a secure border, restored Second Amendment Rights, a ban on sanctuary cities, lasting property tax relief, an end to the franchise tax, an end to tolling, protections for life and traditional Texas values, and educational freedom through school choice. It’s beginning to look as if some of those campaign promises are “all hat and no cattle.”

With the condition our country is in, we’re in no mood for any stalling, slow walking, or backtracking from Texas leaders. We need Governor Abbott and Lt. Governor Patrick to make good on their campaign promises.

That’s from a letter signed by some 28 members of state’s tea party cognoscenti, to the extent such a thing exists. Several of them serve on the lite guv’s Grassroots Advisory Board—those are the guys who called Abbott’s pre-K plan, now passed by both chambers, “godless” and “socialistic.”

They charge that Abbott, Patrick and Straus are on the cusp of “failure,” and the session has been a waste. These people have always loathed Straus, and Abbott was never really one of them, though some of the signers here have been slow to realize that. But it’s significant that Patrick is being charged with crimes against the revolution here too. After all, some of these people have been empanelled as his “advisors.”

Ok, so what would they like to happen? Keep in mind—there’s 10 days left in the session. Pretty much everything that’s not already on the path to final passage is doomed.

Greg Abbott
Gage Skidmore
Gov. Greg Abbott

Secure the border […] End social service magnets (including in-state tuition breaks) for illegal aliens; ban sanctuary cities; mandate employment verification such as E-verify, and impose penalties for violators

Advance & protect the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death

Restore Second Amendment rights

Protect religious liberty – the right to resist violation of personal conscience

Protect religious freedom of clergy, pastors, and churches Protect Texas from a federal redefinition of marriage-HB 4105/SB 673

Prohibit the use of foreign laws, which do not guarantee our fundamental constitutional rights, from being used in Texas courts (ALAC)

Protect and harden the Texas electric grid—a life, security and economic issue

Provide educational freedom and choice for all parents and students

Advance fiscal responsibility through constitutional spending limits, budget transparency, debt and tax reform

Reform state transportation policy to end dependence on debt and tolling

Advance private property rights with eminent domain and annexation reforms

Sounds easy enough, right? Yes, some of the bills they single out literally cannot be passed, and some issues were effectively shut down months ago—the anti-LGBT House Bill 4105 is and has been dead. But now that the fire has been lit under them, Abbott, Patrick and Straus will get moving quickly to protect the electrical grid from electromagnetic pulse weapons, one presumes. This session has swung, with metronomic regularity, from quiet bleakness to high comedy. This is a fine entry in the latter category as the last days roll by.

It’s funny, but these aren’t just cranks. They have real influence in the Republican primary. When Capitol observers wondered about the feasibility of a Patrick primary challenge to Abbott in 2018, these are the people who were supposed to have been his footsoldiers—very good people to have in a fight. Maybe they still are. They’ll certainly take to Patrick more than the alternative.

But it’s a sign that he hasn’t done as good a job of managing expectations among his core supporters as he might have. It’s an interesting political problem: How do you satisfy a political base that literally cannot be satisfied?

Well, maybe they can: But it takes a special kind of leader. Recently, the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party delivered a flag signed by their members to an exceptional kind of guy who needs their support and prayers as he fights to pass the many bills he’s advanced on behalf of conservative values this session: Jonathan Stickland.

Texas Family Values Rally
Kelsey Jukam
Jonathan Saenz of Texas Values, right, stares at a cardboard wedding cake celebrating Texas' ban on same-sex marriage in February.


There was a lot of posturing Friday about the death of House Bill 4105, a fairly bizarre anti-gay marriage bill from state Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia) that fell victim to a major House procedural deadline Thursday night.

Bell, who was one of the reps to cut that famous anti-gay wedding cake a couple months back, aimed to establish another last line of defense against the possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court would invalidate Texas’ constitutional ban on same-sex marriages. His bill, which was co-authored by so many GOP reps that they alone would have guaranteed passage, would have turned the current gay marriage ban to a super-duper superban.

It was a very dumb bill from the start, and mismanaged by its supporters even by the low standards of the Texas Legislature. It was filed very late—literally on the last day a bill could be filed, March 13—and then it sat around. By the time it was eligible to come to the House floor, it was so far back on the calendar that it became easy for Democrats to talk and talk and talk—a tactic known as “chubbing,” for some probably ungodly reason—until the midnight Thursday deadline for considering yet-unpassed House bills.

Immediately, the posturing began. Democrats celebrated the death of 4105 as a triumph of legislative cunning and tenacity. Conservatives bashed House leadership while simultaneously claiming the bill’s existence was evidence they were “#StillWinning,” even if the bill got hara-kiri’ed. On Friday, the overwhelming majority of the House GOP caucus pledged their undying support of traditional marriage in a flowery letter. They wanted the bill to have passed so bad, they said.

It makes perfect sense for the Democrats to claim total victory here, especially since they will have few other chances this session. Gay marriage and gay rights are a huge issue for the party, though it’s hard to predict the practical consequences of Bell’s bill given that the Supreme Court soon might effectively sweep away the relevant statutes. And Democrats certainly were a major reason why the bill died: Chubbing isn’t as tough as filibustering, but they did smart work over the last week to slow the process just enough.

But if they hit a home run here, it’s because they got an easy pitch. Most House GOPers, whatever their other faults, still know a stupid bill when they see one. There’s a general level of acknowledgement in many quarters—even among some social conservatives—that the increasingly Sisyphean struggle against gay marriage is a lost cause, and a distraction from causes the godly folk really care about, like abortion. (Importantly, the business lobby, the Legislature’s one true Almighty Power, is tired of these shenanigans.)

In other words, if House Republicans wanted this to pass, it would have. There’s so much House leadership can do to a bill when it really cares.

But conservatives who want to pin this on House Speaker Joe Straus are ignoring their own glaring failures here. The bill was filed when the session was nearly half-over. Bell’s original gay marriage bill, HB 623, went nowhere, then was dropped and re-emerged, weakened, as 4105.

If anti-gay ringleaders like Jonathan Saenz wanted to maximize their leverage over reluctant pols, there were many other things they could have done, starting by using the more sympathetic Senate. They could enlist Sen. Brian Birdwell or Sen. Donna Campbell to carry a companion to Bell’s bill. Now the framing is different, and you have a lifeboat if Bell’s bill tanks. Instead, they launched a hastily folded paper airplane into anti-aircraft fire. Well done, fellas.

Ah, but Saenz would tell you, we’re still winning. Look at all those names that signed up to coauthor the bill. Look at the letter today, signed by 93 of the House’s 98 Republicans. Does he believe it, or is he putting on a good face? Saenz is, for whatever else he is, not dumb. It would be wise to suspect the latter.

That letter, though. Here’s a sampling of the prose:

Traditional marriage is the bedrock institution of both our society and the success Texas has been blessed to experience since our admission as the 28th state within these United States of America.

We, therefore, affirm the preservation of the present definition of marriage as being the legal union of one man and one woman as husband and wife, and pledge to uphold and defend this principle that is so dearly held by Texans far and wide.

This is a bit like forgetting to water your friend’s plants when she’s out of town, only to send an essay upon her return emphasizing the importance that you place in the concept of plants, and the value of keeping them alive.

None of this is to say that other anti-gay amendments or bills won’t pass in the coming weeks, or that a majority of Republicans in the Legislature are secretly pro-gay marriage. Far from it. If a vote occurs on some of the provisions of HB 4105, offered as amendments to other bills, they could easily pass. But the events of the last few days are evidence of the writing on the wall for Saenz & company.

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Texas House of Representatives
The Texas House in session on April 4, 2013.


This has been a fairly demoralizing few weeks for even those with low expectations for state government. Events point to a significant way in which the polarization of Texas state government is making it more like its dread enemy, Congress.

In recent years across the political spectrum, in Texas and nationally, we’ve seen the time between the end of one election and the beginning of the next shorten—constant political agitation powered in part by the scrutiny brought by new media, and the increasing demand for ideological purity, have dissolved the distance between governing and campaigning.

The 84th Texas Legislature is best understood as one part of a never-ending, ouroboros-like primary. The 2014 election brought us statewide elected officials who don’t know how to stop campaigning: They’ve never been forced to do otherwise. That’s true up and down the statewide ticket, from Gov. Greg Abbott to Ag Commissioner Sid Miller, but it’s manifested itself particularly in the Legislature this year. As a result, and partially because of the role of a number of outside instigators, the political atmosphere around the Capitol this session has been less conducive to governing and more conducive to showmanship and brinksmanship.

Start with Abbott, who must rue the fact that the story of his Jade Helm 15 letter is now entering its third week, and seems to continue ricocheting around national and international media like a stray bullet. It is the most widely covered thing Abbott has done as governor, if not in his entire career as a public servant.

On one hand, some members of the media have made too much of Abbott’s letter. It has few, if any, practical negative consequences.

But the wording of the letter—and the failure of Abbott’s team to comprehend how it would read to outsiders—is small evidence that the governor’s office hasn’t fully adapted to governing. He amplified nutters when he easily could have ignored them. A major responsibility of the governor of any state, one would think, would be to avoid embarrassing his constituents. Are these mistakes because of inexperience, or because he fears a future primary challenge?

Whatever it is, there’s little room to credit him with good faith here: Abbott has a long history of these pontifications. He loves to position himself as the protector of the vulnerable and frightened. When international election observers came to the United States to observe the 2012 presidential election, he threatened them with arrest, cheering conservative groups and earning a similar kind of backlash as the Jade Helm letter. Three years later, he’s using the same playbook.

When it comes to governing, though, Abbott has been less sure of himself. He’s at least partially responsible for the logjam between the House and Senate, thanks to his failure to articulate his positions, a gap the lobby has been only too willing to fill. His failure to speak clearly isn’t about policy confusion—one assumes his team has a preference—but about an unwillingness to take political risks by alienating one chamber or another. But those moments are precisely what governing is about.

Then there’s Dan Patrick, Abbott’s 2014 classmate. One of his first acts with the gavel was to polarize the Senate by killing the two-thirds rule. No longer would Democrats have very much of a say in anything, a change they said would make the upper chamber more like D.C. Still, many of the biggest items on Patrick’s wish list are unattainable to him. Instead, Patrick has developed a novel style of governance, which one could describe as the Senate of Forms.

He pledged to deliver “next level” conservatism to the Lege, but his tenure as lite guv seems to have been consumed primarily by the promotion of bills and policies that are doomed to failure and were perhaps never really even intended to pass. Patrick spent the first two months of the session holding press conferences about his policy agenda, piling those on top of a mountain of promises he’d already made as a candidate, as if he were a newly elected president. It’s a strange way to run the Senate, one that seems tailored solely to help Patrick with his next primary.

Take the effort to repeal the Texas DREAM Act, which allows some of the state’s undocumented residents to pay in-state tuition at state colleges. This was one of the things that Patrick talked most about on the campaign trail: He vowed that its repeal would be one of his first, if not his first, acts. But it was dead from the very beginning of the session, mostly because of his fellow Republicans.

But the shadow puppetry Patrick requires to justify himself to his base demanded that his Senate allies drag the zombie bill through committee hearings. So state Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) terrified an uncountable number of people with the prospect that they, their friends or family, could one day soon no longer afford college. They came to Austin in great numbers to pour their hearts out to the Senate. They couldn’t know the bill was dead, a weird ploy in a long-running conservative shadow war.

When Patrick’s voucher bill, which we know now was also essentially dead from the start, was heard in committee, Patrick came down himself to testify for it—and take a selfie. This is not, traditionally, how the second-most powerful man in the state exercises his influence. It was a show, designed to demonstrate that he cared. People who know how to use power do not normally need to show their hand in this way.

But Patrick’s most important contribution this session has been a tax plan and associated budget gimmicks that make no sense and have almost no value. His proposed tax package gives little to taxpayers and hurts the state. When Patrick next runs for office, few voters will remember the small and temporary tax break he won them. The only importance it holds is that if it passes, Patrick can say that he cut property taxes, and if others oppose him in doing so, he can say that they kept property taxes high.

Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick
Kelsey Jukam
Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick at the State of the State Address.
In this, he’s fighting House Speaker Joe Straus and his allies. The campaign against Straus is one of the longest-running grudge matches in the state, and the lieutenant governor is its new champion. They don’t often talk about policy, and when they do, it doesn’t always go well. To be sure, Straus has found his own pugilists to return fire, state Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) chief among them. But if the two chambers fail to come to an agreement on important issues in the coming weeks, remember that it’s not about policy. It’s the campaign. And if they do come to an agreement, it will be an agreement shaped by dueling egos, not principle.

Finally, there are the legislators themselves. There’s been a general lack of communication between members of the two chambers all session. Budding primary challenges and attack sites began rolling on basically as soon as the Legislature convened. Pretty much everyone, no matter the party or chamber or faction, is unhappy with the way the session has gone so far. Some legislators and staffers say the feeling in the Lege is worse even than it was in 2011, when the Lege had to contend with an apocalyptic budget shortfall.

There could be no better symbol of the ways Austin’s political culture has deteriorated than the news that a sneak of weasels calling themselves the American Phoenix Foundation—conservative activists who at the very least, have a number of mutual friends with the consultants who back Senate right-wingers like Burton, Hall, and Huffines—have been going around the Texas Capitol making secret recordings of legislators as they go about their business.

They claim to have some 800 hours of recordings, excerpts of which Breitbart Texas says it will release after the session. They’ve been walking around the halls of the Capitol, and around Austin, with cameras, hoping to entrap legislators. They’ve harassed reporters. Once their cover was blown, they’ve taken to using their presence to intimidate capitol-goers, offering false bravado in verbal form. They seem to use fake names, and their website lists a fake address. They’re creeps.

It’s the ultimate manifestation of the permanent campaign. The recordings themselves, and the recorders themselves, are almost certainly less impressive than they let on. But even if they caught nothing important, their presence deteriorates relations and trust between legislators further.

The perception will be that one team—the team that the Senate’s right-wing is on—is spying on the other team. And as Ross Ramsey pointed out in the Texas Tribune, the decision to hold whatever the cameras caught until after the session will leave some legislators who might waver on key votes thinking, “What do they have on me?”

So with a few weeks to go in the session, we find ourselves with game-playing leaders, a carnival sideshow in the halls and unhappy legislators who, by and large, trust each other about as far as you can see in The Cloak Room. It’s possible that by Abbott and Patrick’s second session in 2017, all involved will have gained a little maturity and wisdom. But then, we’ll be even closer to the next statewide primary. It’s not an especially promising recipe for the future.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen - tax cuts

How much does Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) hate Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s tax cut plan? Let him count the ways.

There’s his argument that Patrick’s proposed small break in school property taxes would be quickly swallowed up by higher appraisal rates, as a similar tax cut was in 2006. There’s his argument that’s it’s not really a tax cut at all, because the state can’t cut local property taxes. There’s his wonderment at the idea that the state giving local governments money to make up for their decreased tax revenues can really be called a “cut.” There’s his argument that, because the state can’t control local spending in the future, Patrick’s plan would result in more spending at the local level and more spending at the state level or, in his words, “spending $2 to get $1.”

Then there’s his political critique of Patrick. On Tuesday and Wednesday, at a meeting of the committee he chairs, House Ways & Means, and at a Texas Tribune event, he called Patrick, in essence, a fool. Bonnen, a Lege veteran, charged Patrick with making “some errors in his exuberance.” He laughed at the idea that Patrick offered his plan to boost local school districts. He suggested Patrick hadn’t done much “punching the numbers.”

We’re entering the last stages of one of the strangest and most consequential standoffs of the session: The fight over whether the crummy tax plan originating in the Senate or the crummy tax plan originating in the House should pass. The former would reduce property tax growth and cut business taxes, and the latter would cut sales taxes and business taxes.

Bonnen’s talk this week—along with op-eds he wrote for major Texas newspapers—are his way of laying down the law. He’s demonstrating, exhaustively, that property tax cuts will not pass the House this session—if there was any doubt about it before. (There shouldn’t have been, but some on the Senate side have been a bit slow on the uptake lately.)

In committee Tuesday, he emphasized something else: If the tax impasse results in a special session, the Legislature should be ashamed.

“I think there’s absolutely no excuse and we should all be embarrassed if we’re in a special session,” he said. “There’s no reason.”

But while Bonnen is shutting a door, he’s opening a window. In typical Lege style, he’s offered a compromise plan that’s even more ill-conceived than the two plans already on the table. His idea would be to do a tax cut package of a similar size to the two being discussed—about $4.5 billion—but make it all business tax cuts. In other words, individual Texas taxpayers wouldn’t see any tax relief at all, at least not directly. (There’s another plan being circulated now that would include a tiny amount of property tax relief as well, but the problem there is much the same.)

Dick Lavine, of the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities, endorsed Patrick’s plan over the House plan in committee last night, because, while he thought both were bad, more money would go to individuals with the Senate plan. (Businesses that make lots of purchases are the primary beneficiaries of the sales tax cut, and big businesses especially so.)

Bonnen’s compromise, Lavine told the Observer after his testimony, is even worse in this regard. The state would shed a huge amount of tax revenue exclusively for the benefit of businesses. And because a substantial portion of franchise taxes are paid by out-of-state shareholders, the benefit wouldn’t even all stay in Texas to be reinvested here.

So to sum up, the two chambers are having an ego contest over two poorly constructed and faulty tax cut packages. Privately, most reps don’t really care about the House plan, and most senators don’t care about the Senate plan. Neither is enthusiastic about the policy particulars involved. But because neither wants to let the other “win,” we’re headed toward either a pointless special session in which both sides still can’t “win,” or a third option, Bonnen’s proposed compromise, that’s even worse. Take pride, ladies and gentlemen, in your 84th Legislature.

Leticia Van de Putte conducts a post-election interview with Univision after her victory speech.
Christopher Hooks
Leticia Van de Putte conducts a post-election interview with Univision after her victory speech.

Update: Congratulations, San Antonio—It’s a runoff!

As most predicted, the four-way electoral brawl to become mayor of the Alamo City has shrunk to two members. Leticia Van de Putte took 30.4 percent of the vote, followed by current mayor Ivy Taylor, who took 28.4 percent. Edged out are the runoff are Mike Villarreal, with 26 percent, and Tommy Adkisson, who took just 9.7 percent.

Though Taylor seems to have kept pace with Van de Putte through the first round of voting, she’s the underdog in the runoff. It’s much more likely that Villarreal and Adkisson voters will find a home with Van de Putte camp than Taylor.

It’s a major turnabout for Van de Putte, who got trounced in the 2014 lieutenant governor contest and resigned her seat just a few months ago. As the mayor of San Antonio, Van de Putte would again be a visible and important part of the state Democratic party hierarchy.

But in a victory-ish speech in which she appeared with her family, Van de Putte acknowledged that there’s a “lot of work left to do.” She’d need to win the support of Villarreal and Adkisson supporters after a campaign in which Van de Putte and former state Rep. Villarreal were frequently at each other’s throats. In her speech, Van de Putte called Adkisson “a dear friend” but said only that Villarreal had run “a tough campaign.” She thanked them both for their “tenacity.”

In talking to reporters afterward, she was more effusive. Adkisson had “the heart of a warrior,” she said, and Villarreal ran “an amazing campaign. Relentless, energetic, focused. I’ve got to take my hat off to him.” She said she’d be aggressive about courting both of them and their supporters.

When asked for the primary difference between herself and Taylor, VDP touted her experience in the Legislature. “If there was a major issue, I was usually in the center of it,” she said, adding that she has “the ability to work with people with very different political positions.”

Taylor, the de facto GOP candidate in the non-partisan race, faces an uphill climb. But in her speech Saturday night, she touted the passage of a ballot measure giving City Council members and the mayor a salary for the first time in the city’s history—before, they were paid a small stipend per meeting.

Another ballot measure that passed would require a vote before a streetcar or light rail system is built—a proxy vote of sorts on former Mayor Julian Castro’s plan to build a streetcar system, killed by Ivy Taylor just hours after Castro left for D.C.

Original story: On Saturday, voters in San Antonio will go to the polls to elect a new mayor—the beginning of the end of a seemingly endless series of cascading elections triggered by the departure of former Mayor Julian Castro last year to head the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The result probably won’t be determined tonight—with four major candidates, a runoff is almost inevitable—but tonight’s vote count isn’t just important for the residents of San Antonio, the nation’s seventh-largest city. Much like the upcoming mayoral election in Houston, slated for November, the election in San Antonio provides an opportunity to take stock of Democratic politics in the state as we head toward 2016.

The contenders are a diverse bunch. There’s former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, last year’s Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor. Most observers feel VDP, as she’s known, is assured a spot in the runoff.

As one of the party’s standard-bearers in 2014—and for her role in Wendy Davis’ 2013 filibuster—VDP has had an almost mythic status among the state’s liberals. As Dan Patrick’s opponent, she was an underdog. An excellent retail politician, she roamed the state with not enough money and not enough free airtime to counter her opponent and went down hard with the rest of the ticket.

But in the mayor’s race, she holds the opposite position. With a huge financial advantage and the status of the presumptive favorite, she’s been able to bludgeon her opponents—particularly former state Rep. Mike Villarreal, who is attempting to fight his way to a spot in the runoff. Van de Putte dumped oodles of leftover money from her statewide race into the fund for her mayoral run, leaving some observers to wonder if that was her plan all along. And despite that, she’s struggled, firing most of her campaign staff in February and bringing in hired gun Christian Archer to lead a turnaround.

Lately, Van de Putte has gone for Villarreal’s jugular, using remarkably strong language to decry Villarreal as a many-faced “backroom dealmaker” and “corporate crony” who is bought and paid for by monied interests that would destroy San Antonio. It makes the language Van de Putte used against Patrick last year look like mash notes.

Villarreal and VDP have some history—the latter opposed the former when he ran for VDP’s old house district in 1999. But the level of vitriol between the two now has been pretty remarkable. And it’s somewhat surprising to lege-watchers, who remembered Villarreal as a decent guy and policy-minded rep. who was pretty well respected by his Democratic colleagues, Van de Putte included.

But the more likely candidate for the second slot in the runoff is current San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor, appointed to the job by the City Council after Castro’s departure. A socially conservative African-American woman who was born in Brooklyn, Taylor has made her mark on the city during her brief tenure—she helped cancel one of Castro’s prestige projects, a proposed streetcar system. She earned some opprobrium for calling the effort to protect the city’s LGBT communities with a non-discrimination ordinance a “waste of time.”

Of the four major contenders, she’s essentially the de facto GOP candidate—she can count among her supporters men like Red McCombs, a perennial top-dollar Republican donor. She stands to benefit from GOP votes while the Democratic vote is fractioned. In a low-turnout scenario—San Antonio has seen more than its fair share of special elections lately, and the city’s voters might just be fatigued—Taylor could outperform.

In one recent state senate special election in San Antonio, the more conservative Democratic candidate, Jose Menendez, won out over progressive Trey Martinez Fischer, thanks in part to a flood of votes from Republicans on Menendez’s behalf. If Taylor does well tomorrow, expect more head-scratching about Democratic turnout problems.

There’s also Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, but few expect him to win a runoff spot at this point.