OK, but what's their position on Medicaid expansion?
The next lt. governor is going to have a lot of serious problems. The public education system has been weakened and tarnished by years of cuts and legislative meddling, and the transportation system is running out of money, even while the property tax-heavy tax structure in Texas has reached a breaking point. We might be on the verge of a taxpayer revolt—but without the strong government services to show for it.
Hospitals are clamoring for Medicaid expansion, while many doctors are dead-set against it, and the poor are left to suffer. At some point, the lt. governor is probably going to have to help broker a new model for public education financing, thanks to the courts—one of the most difficult things the Legislature ever has to do, a task Solomon himself would have trouble with. And he or she is going to have to tackle all of that at a time when every statewide official is new, and with a lot of new senators besides.
So naturally, Dan Patrick’s first general election ad opens with the Islamic State:
There was a fun period of time after the primary runoff where people hoped Patrick might be moderating his public profile. The debate was one datapoint, but I think we can safely dispose of that dream now.
Crisis, that old broad, brings out the best in people. It also brings out the worst in people. Consider the single Ebola case that’s caused so much panic in Dallas. On the one hand, you’ve got Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins. On the other, you’ve got Breitbart Texas.
People are losing their minds about this Ebola thing, and a lot of fear and anger has been directed toward the family Thomas Eric Duncan was staying with when he got sick. The terribly unlucky people, quarantined in their own apartment, have been isolated and stigmatized by the world even though they haven’t shown any symptoms of Ebola—and in fact, helped identify the reason for Duncan’s illness after the hospital failed to do so, possibly saving lives.
To reassure the people of Dallas, and as a gesture of compassion, Jenkins paid the family a visit at their apartment last Thursday, and then came back the next day to personally drive them to new donated lodging away from the public’s glare. On the advice of experts, he didn’t wear protective clothing. Christine Gorman, the health and medicine editor of Scientific American, called Jenkins and Dallas County HHS head Zachary Thompson “heroes.”
Jenkins and Thompson (and others like them whose names I don’t know) are heroes to me because they took compassionate action based on facts and not unfounded fears. Ebola is scary enough without trying to make things worse than they are.
Gorman’s right. Misinformation in the face of a possible health crisis is a terrible thing, and dangerous. Straight talk and straight deeds should be lauded. As Texas Department of State Health Services Commissioner Dr. David Lakey said, the “fear of this could be more damaging to this community than the virus itself.”
But in fairness, there’s another take on what Jenkins did—a very hot take. That take is: Clay Jenkins has Ebola now, and we’re all going to die, and not just at the end of our natural lives, but probably pretty soon. Because Clay Jenkins is going to give you Ebola.
The fun started on Friday, when Breitbart Texas ran a story with a charming title: “NAIVE LIBERAL TEXAS JUDGE ENTERS EBOLA APARTMENT WITHOUT PROTECTION.” Resident Breitbart virologist Bob Price knew the truth, and saw through the science-man lies: Jenkins was in great danger, and so was the public. Price implies that Jenkins can now spread Ebola to anyone he touches, even without showing the sickness himself.
No explanation was given Thursday night for the Judge’s appearance at the apartment. It is not known at this time if the Judge will cancel any public appearances where he would normally be shaking a lot of hands after being inside the still contaminated apartment without protection.
This is bad information for a couple of reasons. We should keep Duncan in our thoughts, but his illness poses very little danger to the rest of us—even if more people who were around Duncan eventually get sick. Ebola is difficult to transmit, and not contagious until a person shows symptoms. In a rich country with a good public health system, isolated cases are relatively easy to contain, unlike really deadly diseases such as the flu. That’s according to the people who have dedicated their lives to studying infectious disease.
As far as that apartment goes: According to the Centers for Disease Control, Ebola can stay alive on dry surfaces for a couple hours, and in expelled body fluids for several days, but the family has gotten past that point. No one has gotten sick. They could still get sick, but they won’t be contagious until they show symptoms. And they’re being checked twice a day to ensure they’re not.
After his first trip, Jenkins returned to drive the family to the house where they’ll wait out the quarantine, then showed up to a press conference at “the same building from where Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly shot President John F. Kennedy,” Price writes helpfully. He again implies Jenkins is an idiot, reeking of disease:
Jenkins bragged to the reporters that he was “wearing the same shirt” he wore while he was in the apartment that had been exposed to the Ebola virus and while he was driving the family who had slept for days on the same mattresses the Ebola patient, Thomas Eric Duncan, had been sleeping. He slept on all three mattresses in the apartment for at least two days while he was symptomatic. Jenkins then very proudly stated he was going home to his wife and nine-year-old daughter.
A day later, the cheerful conclusion. One of Breitbart’s loyal readers saw the bit about the 9-year-old daughter, decided she could die soon, and clamored to take action. He or she filed a report with Child Protective Services. No, really. This person was so proud that they took pictures of the report, and sent them to Breitbart, which dutifully wrote it up. “EXCLUSIVE: CPS COMPLAINT FILED AGAINST TEXAS JUDGE OVER DAUGHTER AND POTENTIAL EBOLA EXPOSURE,” reads the story’s headline.
The concerned citizen said he felt Jenkins’ conduct was inappropriate when he unnecessarily exposed his child to potential danger. “I am doing this because I am concerned about the child,” the complainant said, “and I am concerned for the children in her school who might become exposed if the virus were to spread.”
Again—that’s not how Ebola works. The courageous anonymous complainant keeps digging:
“There seems to be a lot of dispute about how the disease is transmitted,” he continued. “I was very concerned that he would take this unnecessary risk with his own daughter for what appears to be his own political purposes.”
A lot of dispute! After quoting the anonymous person who thinks no one understands how Ebola travels—a wholly idiotic, wrong and dangerous idea—it would have been very easy to include information from experts about Ebola transmission. This did not happen. Instead, the piece says the family members could still get sick—at which point they would be a transmission risk, though let me again emphasize that hasn’t happened yet—and raises the possibility that Jenkins faces, under the child endangerment statute, “termination of [his] parental rights.”
That seems as unlikely as the appearance of Black Death in Deep Ellum, but it’s still a nice demonstration of the consequences of a feedback loop of misinformation. What if—God forbid—there’s a more serious outbreak of Ebola somewhere in the United States down the road? Breitbart has helped spread damaging misinformation about the disease that does nothing but harm. “If people with the sniffles convinced they have Ebola start overfilling the Dallas-area’s already stressed emergency rooms,” Time magazine notes, in a piece about Jenkins and the consequences of wrong-headed disease panic, “perfectly treatable infirmities could become more lethal.”
One thing that’s necessary for good journalism is empathy. Without it, reporting can be a powerfully destructive activity, a terrible act of violence. It can rip people apart from each other, frighten and harm, and alienate whole communities. The best journalists know that and struggle with it. The worst are unaware, or don’t care, and it’s hard to say what’s worse. Imaging writing something that sics Child Protective Services on a father for no good reason while burdening a trauma-afflicted family with a greater stigma—or reducing the sacred, lost life of a border-crossing immigrant to the headline: “ANIMALS FEAST ON BODY OF DEAD MIGRANT.”
But the most basic, important element of journalism is a commitment to accuracy and a relative sense of fairness. Why spend so much time thinking about Breitbart Texas? Well, it’s not just a fringe publication. There’s an unbelievable amount of paranoia and fear floating around this state, looking for hosts. Breitbart feeds on that, multiplies it, and returns it to the ether. It’s the primary news source for a lot of people who don’t read news. It’s bad for us.
As of mid-day Tuesday, the three Ebola pieces cited above boast almost 1,600 comments, a swamp of contagion I will leave to you to explore.
We have just four weeks before Election Day, and realities are clicking into place. Monday was the last day new voters could register. And Tuesday served as one of the last checkpoints in the money race, as 30-day financial reports were released online.
The reports, which track fundraising and spending from July 1 to Sept. 25, show more similarities with the last round of reports than differences. In the marquee governor’s race, Greg Abbott continues to hold on to a massive war chest—he has more than $30.1 million in cash on hand, even though he’s spent more than $17.6 million and raised only $7.8 million in the last three months. It’s a superhuman sum. His report spans some 2,706 pages.
Davis’ finances are more complicated, in part because the campaign’s effort is split into three groups—but the campaign reports some $5.7 million in cash on hand split across four committees. That’s a little more than a fifth of Abbott’s sum. In spending, though, Davis has been keeping better pace with Abbott.
The campaign itself reports $6.8 million in contributions, plus another $1 million in in-kind donations, similar figures to Abbott’s haul. Battleground Texas, the campaign’s field arm, took in a little over $2.6 million, while spending $2.9 million. Battleground has only $473,000 remaining as of Sept. 25. Davis has never been able to compete with Abbott on a purely financial level, and the gap would seem to be growing. At the same time, as the race nears the finish line, opportunities for Abbott to spend that money diminish.
Together, it’s likely that Davis and Abbott will collectively raise more than $100 million this election. That’s a staggering sum, but it’s still likely to fall short of the $125 million raised and spent by Democrat Tony Sanchez and Rick Perry in 2002 but only because Sanchez spent out of his personal fortune.
In the lt. governor’s race, Republican Dan Patrick is better-positioned than Democrat Leticia Van de Putte, but his advantage is much less than Abbott’s. Patrick has $4.3 million in cash on hand compared to Van de Putte’s $2.2 million. He outraised Van de Putte $4.26 million to $3.1 million. But Van de Putte outspent Patrick more than 2-to-1 in the last three months—she spent $1.75 million, while he spent $804,000.
In the attorney general’s race, where Ken Paxton is biding his time till victory against Sam Houston, Paxton has almost 13 times as much money in the bank as Houston does, and raised more than 15 times as much money.
Up in Ft. Worth’s Senate District 10, things are more interesting. Democrat Libby Willis is fighting an uphill battle to save Wendy Davis’ soon-to-be-former seat for the Democratic Party against tea party organizer Konni Burton. This summer, Burton’s fundraising was kind of lackluster, but most people assumed money would pour into her campaign from the usual GOP donors at the last minute.
That hasn’t happened, and Willis has gotten a massive boost from Back to Basics PAC, a campaign finance vehicle heavily underwritten by Houston trial lawyer Steve Mostyn, the state’s biggest Dem donor. On Sept. 12, Back to Basics wrote Willis a $500,000 check—an enormous sum for a legislative race—bringing her contributions for the period to a little under $734,000. She spent just under $331,000, and has almost $475,000 remaining, with $88,000 in outstanding loans.
Burton’s numbers are comparatively anemic. She took in a little over $335,000, spent only $140,000, and has just over $200,000 left—plus $255,000 in outstanding loans. But there’s a strong possibility GOP donors will now race to match Mostyn’s money.
Money’s an important part of these campaigns, but it’s not everything. Battleground is talking up their success at building the Democratic volunteer base: According to its latest statement, 31,000 volunteers “have made 3.9 million phone calls to voters, and reached out to voters at the doors more than 1.2 million times.”
What effect will all that have? We’ll see in a couple weeks. But there’s some reason to think it’s made an impact. As the Houston Chroniclereported yesterday, the number of registered voters in the state’s five most populous counties has increased 2 percent since 2012—though that still doesn’t keep pace with population growth, at 2.6 percent. In majority Latino Bexar County, voter registration numbers is 3.6 percent higher than 2012. In 2010, during the last midterm election, the number of registered voters in the Texas’ five biggest counties actually declined from the previous cycle. Texas being what it is, higher voter registration numbers will almost inevitably help Democrats.
Gov. Rick Perry and GOP House candidate Charles Perry pose for photos in 2010.
Recently, state Rep. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock) got himself elected to a state Senate seat. He’s replacing Robert Duncan, who was well-regarded as a pragmatic dealmaker, and will be missed by the people who like to see the Legislature pass bills. (Some do not.) In the special election that Perry won, he was strongly backed by groups like Michael Quinn Sullivan’s Empower Texans. He didn’t seem like he’d be one of the most extreme new senators. Maybe Perry wouldn’t be that guy. When dealing with the Texas Legislature—a frequently demoralizing experience—it’s important to keep an open mind, lest our hearts calcify.
After placing his hand on the Bible and taking the oath of office, state Sen. Charles Perry compared what he called the “spiritual battle” brewing across the nation to the Holocaust.
God has a place in the government, Perry explained in his inaugural speech as he vividly recalled a recent trip to a concentration camp in Berlin.
Well, that’s probably taken out of context. I bet that—
“There were 10,000 people that were paraded into a medical office under the guise of a physical. As they stood with their back against the wall, they were executed with a bullet through the throat. Before they left, 10,000 people met their fate that way,” Perry said.
“Is it not the same than when our government continues to perpetuate laws that lead citizens away from God? The only difference is that the fraud of the Germans was more immediate and whereas the fraud of today’s government will not be exposed until the final days and will have eternal-lasting effects.”
Hm. Well, sometimes politicians say extreme stuff like that, but when you get down to where the rubber meets the road they’re more thoughtful. I bet when we get to the start of the session that Perry will be more—
His biggest challenge will be the “spiritual battle for the spirit of this nation and the soul of its people,” he said.
When he gets to the capital, abortion and same-sex marriage will be at the forefront of discussion, Perry said.
“Roe v. Wade condemned 55 million innocent and defenseless souls that cried out for righteousness from a God who is just — we will answer for that as a nation,” Perry said, later noting that he has made clear his stance on gay marriage.
OK, but I bet Perry’s surrounding himself with thoughtful people that—
Also recalling a trip to a concentration camp, Pastor Jeff McCreight of Rock City Church compared abortion to the estimated 11 million people who died at the hands of the Nazis.
“The value of human life is continually being attacked by a 41-year-old Holocaust called abortion, which makes Hitler look like a humanitarian,” McCreight said.
That “attack” is why McCreight said Perry’s swearing in ceremony was so important.
If Dan Patrick wins the lt. governor’s race, can we call his Senate the “Salvation Army?”
At the second of two governor's race debates, Wendy Davis seemed a great deal more relaxed and comfortable.
If you only have time to watch one of the three major debates this election cycle, you should make it tonight’s debate in Dallas. If you’re pulling for Wendy Davis to do well, you’ll enjoy it. But it’s worth watching because something strange happened tonight: Like the sky opening up after a monsoon season of turgid talking points, Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott actually took each other on tonight, to a certain extent. And against all odds, something approximating a discussion about policy took place. Call it the Miracle at KERA.
True, the bar was low after the last debate—the state’s first real gubernatorial debate since 2006. (And in Texas, the bar is pretty low anyway.) And we didn’t get off to a promising start—the first question from the panel of moderators asked how Davis and Abbott would respond as governor to the discovery that a man in a hospital in Dallas has Ebola. Both candidates are anti-Ebola, a devastating blow to the state’s pro-disease caucus. “We want to make sure that this Ebola disease does not spread any further,” said Abbott, sagely.
But things got better. Davis and Abbott grappled with each other on two wide fronts—the first, over ethics issues. Davis was asked about her legal work, which she rebuffed and went through the list of accumulated attack lines about Abbott’s tenure as AG. (She gave a stronger refutation of the conflict-of-interest charge after she was pressed.)
But when Abbott was asked (at about 19:45 in the video) about accusations his office helped hide incompetence and mismanagement with Gov. Perry’s Texas Enterprise Fund, he didn’t handle it very well. He offered that the recently issued audit of the fund didn’t single him out for criticism. “From the beginning of my campaign I’ve been questioning this very fund,” he said. (Perhaps, one suspects, because he knew how badly it was being run.) He tried to turn the question back to Davis, but she beat it back forcefully. As to the question of why Abbott’s office helped hide non-existing TEF applications from reporters, he couldn’t really answer.
On the issues, Abbott and Davis made stark distinctions. Neither could really answer a question about how they’d fund their education plans, though Abbott at least had a dollar figure for student spending that made it appear that he had given it some thought. But Davis hit Abbott hard. It was ludicrous, she said, for Abbott to keep saying he would make Texas schools No. 1 while defending huge cuts to funding and refusing to commit to providing more resources.
“Mr. Abbott, you’re talking out of both sides of your mouth,” she said. “You say you want to make Texas No. 1 in education. You cannot accomplish that goal without making the appropriate investments.”
On immigration, Abbott committed, after some pushing, to not vetoing a bill from the Legislature that would eliminate in-state tuition for undocumented migrants. There’s been a question about how Abbott would interact with a Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Killing in-state tuition is one of Patrick’s top priorities, and Abbott’s on board, apparently.
But the best part of the debate might have been the discussion over Medicaid expansion—at about 29:30 in the video above. Medicaid expansion is, quite literally, a matter of life and death, one of the most serious issues in the race. If Medicaid isn’t expanded in Texas, a quantifiable number of people will suffer and die—unnecessarily. But it hasn’t come up in the race as much as it might.
Abbott said he’d ask the feds to give Texas its Medicaid dollars as a block grant to be spent as the state sees fit, which few think is a realistic possibility. He assured listeners that he “wouldn’t bankrupt Texas” by imposing on Texas the “overwhelming Obamacare disaster.”
Davis laid out a forceful argument for Medicaid expansion. “I have to laugh when I hear Mr. Abbott talk about bankrupting Texas,” she said. “Right now Texans are sending their hard-earned tax dollars to the IRS, $100 billion of which will never come back to work for us in our state unless we bring it back. As governor, I will it bring it back. Greg Abbott’s plan is for you to send that tax money to California and New York.” Abbott’s rebuttal left Davis smiling from ear to ear. The whole fairly long exchange is worth watching.
Abbott didn’t have a bad night, per se—though there were a couple of awkward moments that’ll likely be circulating in the coming days—but Davis had a very good one. Will it matter? By the end of the debate, Abbott was already referring to himself as a governor in the present tense—something his campaign’s social media guys didn’t feel the need to correct.
Davis can leave the debate stage of the race feeling pretty good about her performance. There’s just a little over a month to go.
This is a blog about Texas politics, so let’s talk about textile factories in the north of England, and the strong message they send about the total inability of our state’s most significant policy organ to handle cognitive dissonance. Bear with me for a second. (Or for a few minutes.)
Last week, Houston played host to a high-profile conference on energy issues, convened by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which no less a source than Wikipedia describes as a “think tank.” It is the most influential such entity in Texas. The group, with the help of a great deal of corporate money, has the ear of the governor and much of the Legislature. What its legion of analysts say and do matters a great deal to the way Texans live. Sometimes they do valuable work. Sometimes they do bad work.
This being Texas, a respectable think tank needs Big Ideas about energy. The group’s message for the most part—and the message of the Houston conference—is that fossil fuels are Good, and we should use more of them. Even global warming is good, if you look at it in the right light, if you were to stipulate that it’s even happening, which it isn’t.
At TPPF, this wholesome message is mostly propagated these days by Kathleen Hartnett White. Before TPPF, White led the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality from 2001 to 2007. If you lived in Texas in the last decade, it was White’s ostensible responsibility to safeguard your lungs and general well-being, and to carefully weigh and balance those concerns against the demands of economic development—a weighty responsibility.
White has become an energy analyst at a fascinating time. Here’s the crux of Texas’ problem: We’ve discovered a new ocean of gas and oil under the state, which can make a significant number of people here—and to a lesser degree, our cash-strapped state in general—very rich. At the same time, the scientific community is more sure than ever before that burning those fuels will hurt us in very real ways. Some of us can live large now, but many others will pay a heavy price.
How can we navigate these complex questions? Into the rain-sodden arena of doubt drives White, in a coal-rolling Humvee upon which another Humvee has been delicately stacked, like a pair of mating dragonflies. Other conservative thinkers have questioned the economic efficiency of renewable energy. That meeker argument is becoming less powerful every day—even though White still calls renewable energy “parasitic,” unlike, one supposes, the heavily subsidized fossil fuel industry.
White’s flooring the gas pedal. Her magnum opus, “Fossil Fuels: The Moral Case,” takes the position that burning coal and oil is in fact a moral imperative. Coal and oil—cheap energy—led to modern prosperity, White writes, and turning away from them will reduce access to prosperity here and across the globe, with grave consequences.
It’s an odd argument partially because it’s hard to say what it stands in opposition to. As a contribution to a policy discourse, its existence only makes sense if you believe—as many do, apparently—that environmentalists desperately desire to tear down the power grid and return the human race to agrarian penury.
The question of balancing prosperity with environmental responsibility in poor parts of the world has been a constant subject of debate and discussion in the environmental movement for decades. And the role that coal played in the story of the industrial revolution isn’t exactly contested territory. Furthermore, coal’s role in the creation of modernity says nothing about our ability to find new sources of prosperity—if we, with our amazing ingenuity, built the combustion engine, why can’t we build a better one? Renewable energy is already bringing electricity to parts of the world that have never really had it before—in places like Tanzania, solar panels are a much better option for rural communities than connecting to the inefficient, poorly maintained national power grid.
But White’s been getting a lot of play with the paper—she’s done the rounds with it this summer. White was the star at the climate conference last week, where Rick Perry deigned to speak. And she’s proud of it: When White presented her paper at the Heritage Foundation in June, she told the crowd that writing the paper led her to “some fascinating books,” and that her curious wanderings included the discovery of “a jillion papers in academic journals.”
But her footnotes come from a mix of places: They range from the British tabloid The Daily Mail, an authoritative source on nothing, to the 17th century English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes. White re-reads Hobbes’ Leviathan and concludes that his theoretical concept of a pre-society, pre-government “state of nature” accurately depicts “preindustrial conditions for the average person.” Hm. There are actual journal articles—mostly from other think tankers. But there’s also reference to less auspicious sources.
The paper contains extensive block quotes and citations from The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, a 2011 popular science book by Matt Ridley—otherwise known as Matthew White Ridley, 5th Viscount Ridley, a Conservative Party member of the United Kingdom’s House of Lords. In some circles, Ridley is most famous for helping to tank the British bank Northern Rock, where he served as chairman. Northern Rock’s spectacular implosion in 2007 was one of the precipitating events of the global financial apocalypse. Several years later, Ridley was awarded the Manhattan Institute’s Hayek Prize, for his ongoing contributions to the unimpeachable cause of the free market. In other circles, Ridley is most famous for his viral Ted Talk, “When Ideas Have Sex.” Ridley gave a keynote at the Houston conference.
But in lieu of a longer dissection of the paper, let’s consider White’s weirdest extrapolation of her argument. On page 17, she notes that the abolitionist movement in Britain happened concurrently with coal-fired industrial growth, and posits that the rise of factories “indeed increased and institutionalized compassion.”
First harnessed in the English Industrial Revolution, fossil fuels spawned unceasing economic growth-an unprecedented productivity of most benefit to the poor until then consigned to poverty and enslavement across the world.
In 1807, the British Parliament finally passed William Wilberforce’s bill to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire. In the same year, the largest industrial complex in the world powered and illuminated by coal opened in Manchester, England. Thus began the century-long process of converting mankind’s industry from the power of muscle, wood, wind, and water to stored solar energy in fossil fuels.
Fossil fuels dissolved the economic justification for slavery.
There’s some bad history in this passage, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a beautiful distillation of a worldview that shuns complexity in all forms.
Sure, there’s a discussion to be had about the reasons for the success of abolitionism in England. Was it a political and social movement, emerging from the Enlightenment, which succeeded in advancing a moral case, or did it happen merely for economic or practical reasons? At any rate, black Britons like Ignatius Sancho and Olaudah Equiano, who were seminal figures in the movement, were active decades before the period White describes. The major first touchstones in the eventual abolition of slavery in the British Empire happened either well before the industrial revolution, or at a point when the industrial revolution was in its absolute infancy.
But the key thing: In tying the abolition of the slave trade to the growth of industrial Manchester, White gets it exactly backwards. The fossil-fueled industrial revolution she’s describing didn’t “dissolve the economic justification for slavery,” it made slavery more lucrative. It made slavery worse.
Here’s why: the new factories in England White describes were producing manufactured goods. Incidentally, many of them—along with many of the touchstones of the industrial revolution, like James Watt’s steam engine—were financed with money from the slave trade. But those factories, most of which were producing textiles, needed raw materials. Foremost among those raw materials was cotton.
Manchester’s new ability to make cheap clothes for the English working class meant that the factories needed a lot more cotton—so demand for the blood-drenched crop exploded. Manchester’s industrial growth was enabled by slavery—something people in the north of England are well aware of. And it fed slavery, too. True, Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1807—but they kept slaves in the colonies until 1833. Afterward, they depended on American slavery. When the fruit of American slavery was finally disrupted at the points of the bayonets of the Army of the Potomac, Northern England plummeted into depression.
As industrial Manchester grew, the American institution of slavery ballooned in scale and scope. In 1800, American slaves produced 156,000 bales of cotton—in 1860, they produced more than 4 million bales. From 1790 to the start of the Civil War, the American slave population likewise multiplied from 700,000 to 4 million, due in large part to new industrial efficiency facilitating demand for cotton—including American contributions like the cotton gin.
Take the words of South Carolinian Thomas Cooper, who warned the British about the price of abolition in 1838. “Every slave in a southern state is an operative for Great Britain. We cannot work rich southern soil by white free labour,” Cooper wrote, “and if you will have Cotton Manufacturers, you must have them based upon slave labour.”
So White got it exactly backwards: The coal-fired industrial revolution exacerbated the problem of slavery. Does that mean that fossil fuels are evil? No, that would be extraordinarily silly—as silly as saying the opposite.
What it does show is that development is a double-edged sword. Things are almost never wholly good, or wholly bad. They’re complicated. They embody complex trade-offs. They have unintended consequences. That’s what the people of Texas asked White to consider when she was the head of TCEQ.
The environmental problems we face today—they are vast, and time for consequential action, knowledgable people tell us, is running short—are very complicated. Texas, as a capital of sorts for global energy development, has an outsized role to play in either our success or failure to cope with them. The people of the state deserve better than meager propaganda. At last week’s summit, in the belly of downtown Houston, White and colleagues got the space to explain to some of Texas’ more powerful people that “America’s energy is the right and moral solution” to the world’s problems.
Modernity—medicine, travel, leisure—is a nice thing. Slowly cooking the planet is not so nice. Helping us navigate trade-offs—taking the measure of the good and the bad of an issue, and finding a path that takes the most of the former and the least of the latter—is the highest possible service intelligent people in public life can render. If think tanks have any role to play, it’s that. But don’t go looking for it at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
These months of committee hearings in the run-up to the next session of the Texas Legislature are like the dropping of a bomb. The hearings started, months ago, with the view from 30,000 feet, and the limitless possibilities of the unborn 84th in all its tea party splendor. As time goes by and we get closer to the end of the year, legislators will still have moments to consider the big, abstract questions of state government, but the features of the terrain below are starting to come into view. When January 13, 2015 hits—zero hour—time will compress, deadlines will appear and the legislators will be left with a bloody, sticky brawl.
The most important of these meetings are the get-togethers of the Senate Committee on Finance, which, guided by its new-ish chair state Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), will face the unenviable task of cobbling together a budget. The committee has been meeting intermittently to get an idea of the contours of the state’s fiscal situation, with the help of the Legislative Budget Board. Today, the committee members heard from the LBB on the major items in the state budget—education, transportation, Medicaid, etc. The board’s packet, for those interested, can be found here.
Here’s the key thing: The Legislature is going to get a fairly substantial pot of new money next session. The economy is going swimmingly, tax revenues are up and there’s a small fortune in oil and gas revenue heading in the Capitol’s direction. That boon has left some wondering what they can get for it.
GOP lt. governor nominee Dan Patrick, who hopes to take control of the Senate in January, will want to have his own fun—his first year with the gavel will be a time for him to leave his mark. He’s talked about altering Texas’ tax system—he’d like to see sales taxes displace the state’s property tax structure. And he’d like to develop a voucher program to help kids in public schools go to private schools. If he wants to do either of those things, it would help greatly to have a surplus in his back pocket.
But look more closely at the emerging state budget, as the committee did today, and the fiscal picture is not quite as rosy. The major pieces of the budget pie—public education, health and human services, higher education, transportation—already aren’t in great health and are going to need quite a bit more money next session just to hold steady. To simply keep up with enrollment, the state’s public education system is going to need $2.2 billion more—and that’s without any funding increase. It seems unlikely in the short- to medium-term that Texas is going to get back to pre-2011 funding levels, when the Legislature cut $5.4 billion from public ed.
There’s trouble in the higher education and Medicaid budgets too. Higher ed spending still lags levels from prior to deep cuts in 2011. Today, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) asked what it would take to fully restore funding. The Legislative Budget Board representatives said they’d get back to her. On Medicaid, state Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown), the new chairman of Senate Health and Human Services, worried that 720,000 “eligible but unenrolled” people could sign up for Medicaid, significantly increasing costs.
Nelson, Schwertner’s predecessor on Health and Human Services, talked a bit about the need to further squeeze the state’s Medicaid program for savings. (No one really considered the possibility of accepting federal money.) “It’s eating up—it’s squeezing out everything else,” Nelson said. “We can’t do anything about caseload. It is what it is.” So more cost containment measures were needed, the reduction of “fraud and waste.” It’s unclear how much money can be realistically recouped that way, especially after years of those efforts.
On the question of transportation, senators were told that the system needed $5 billion more just to keep things at the current level of congestion—$1 billion of that just for crumbling roads in the oil patch.
State Sen. Robert Nichols, chair of Senate Transportation, told the committee that the amount of money the Texas Department of Transportation was spending for “debt service is greater than what we’re adding in terms of new [transportation] capacity.” Nelson: “That’s crazy.”
Last session, the Legislature narrowly passed a proposal to divert half of the oil and gas tax revenue going into the so-called Rainy Day Fund to state transportation funding—about $1.2 billion a year. The constitutional amendment goes to the voters as Proposition 1 on the November ballot. Getting that legislation through the Lege was like pulling teeth, yet much more might be needed. State Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston): “It’s amazing that with Prop 1, we’re only doing a third of what they expect us to do.”
Eighteen members of the 2015 class were present today: 15 sitting senators, plus probable future senators Van Taylor, Paul Bettencourt and Bob Hall. With the new senators in mind, perhaps, Whitmire took two extended interludes to tout the benefits of the two-thirds rule, which Dan Patrick has promised to nuke when he gets to office.
The two-thirds rule requires the consent of 21 senators to bring a bill to the floor—it’s long been leverage for Democrats, and Patrick wants a more pliable chamber. If the rule is retired, Dems have nothing—and the Senate will look a lot more like the contentious special sessions of last summer. But Whitmire tried to sell the room on the rule from a different angle.
“Rural members need a two-thirds rule to make sure we provide for services like farm-to-market roads,” he said. “If you want to make sure you have a state transportation system” that services all parts of the state “you better have a budget 21 senators can support.” If the rule was eliminated, he said, and the state faced a transportation hole of billions, you’d see urban senators from Houston and Dallas conspiring to cut funding for rural roads to keep their own highways paved.
Nelson chided him for going off-topic, but he returned to it later to say much the same thing. In the audience, Charles Perry, recently picked by voters in a special election to represent Lubbock in the Senate, seemed to nod his head along with Whitmire’s exhortation, while Van Taylor, who’ll soon represent suburban Plano, seemed to shake it. On the right flank of the panel of sitting senators, Sens. Eltife, Schwertner and Hancock chuckled at Whitmire. Were they laughing because of Whitmire’s charm and insistence, or because they knew it was futile? We’ll find out in January.
Public discourse, the foundation of democracy, isn’t doing too well in Texas these days. The state’s Republicans have such powerful voices that, for the most part, they don’t need to speak. Past a certain point in the election calendar, silence speaks for them. GOP statewide candidates and legislators alike hoard money, hide from the press, and try not to acknowledge the existence of their opponents. Democrats want to be heard desperately, but don’t get the chance very much. The two sides rarely talk to each other. The conversations we have about the state’s problems become stilted and atrophied.
This weekend’s Texas Tribune Festival, the fourth annual, is one of the rare events in Texas political life that pushes back against the trend a bit—it’s a valuable space that gives political actors room to be a bit more open than they otherwise might be. (Even if they don’t always take that chance.) GOPers don’t much like the Texas press in general, especially newspapers, but some will play along with the Tribune. It’s also a reminder of some of the continuing dysfunctions affecting the state’s political life.
Of the GOP nominees, Greg Abbott, who remains a somewhat mysterious figure away from his slickly-produced ads, declined to come, either to take part in a discussion with Wendy Davis or to be interviewed solo. A screening of his McAllen debate with Davis kicked off the festival: Texas voters didn’t seem particularly well-served by the debate’s format or substance, but at least they agreed to be in the same room as each other.
Land commissioner nominee George P. Bush was game, despite some awkwardness between his campaign and the Trib: His opening night keynote might have been his longest appearance in the spotlight yet, and he still managed to avoid saying much. Asked about immigration, Bush said he didn’t “have a magic wand on this issue. It’s terribly complicated” and would require a “multi-generational viewpoint.” (Accio guest worker program.)
Bush has said there’s still a debate on the causes of global warming. So an audience member challenged him: NASA says 97 percent of scientists in relevant fields agree on the causes. Bush’s answer was one for the ages: “I’ve personally met with folks that have visited with other NASA scientists,” he said, “and they contend that that ’97 percent’ is overstated.”
Attorney general nominee Ken Paxton didn’t come. Comptroller nominee Glenn Hegar took part in a discussion on the budget, but—presumably at Hegar’s urging—his opponent Mike Collier was placed on another panel, one that didn’t have to do with state finance. Lt. governor nominee Dan Patrick, to his credit, consented to be interviewed, but not alongside Leticia Van de Putte—she made sure she sat in the front row during his interview, before taking the stage to do hers.
Patrick’s interview was a nice demonstration of his post-primary grandfather tack. He vigorously denies that he’s been “hiding” on the campaign trail. He praises his interviewer, Evan Smith, as well as both David Dewhurst and Van de Putte, who he’s scorched in other settings. He touts school vouchers as the best friend of the inner-city kid, and says he’ll fund public education in a “smart” way while simultaneously helping local jurisdictions cut property taxes. Rainbow Dan.
There were also a variety of panel discussions, some of which dug deep in policy issues. In some, panelists were so far apart that there wasn’t much room for discussion. In a panel on “dark money” featuring state Rep. Byron Cook, the new chairman of House State Affairs, panelists talked around each other, sometimes unable to even agree on current state of the law. The panel on gay marriage turned briefly contentious when the moderator asked anti-gay marriage warrior Jonathan Saenz about the fact that his ex-wife left him for another woman. (He gave a non-answer.)
Elsewhere, a panel that included former GOP presidential flame-out Jon Huntsman, former Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley—a nice enough lot, but not exactly the vanguard on the bleeding edge of American political life—convened to figure out how to beat back partisanship and give life to the political center. It’s a question that’s never made much sense nationally, but even less so in Texas.
Safely out of office, the three wanted to let people know they had finally figured out how things should work. Bradley had the grandest plan: He wanted to build a “third congressional party” that would “stand for three or four key things.” He wasn’t quite sure what those things should be yet, except one of them should be campaign finance. Somebody should recruit 50 candidates to run in 50 key districts across the country. Half would be ex-military officers, half would be women, etc. All this could be accomplished for the modest sum of $360 million. “Here is the problem with our democracy,” Bradley’s footmen would say. “It is the Congress.”
Hutchison’s complaints were more modest. The president had rejected the Simpson-Bowles plan, that totemic budget proposal embraced by the beltway punditocracy. “The president put it on the shelf,” Hutchison said, “and congressional leaders put it on the shelf.” When an audience member asked how you could realistically change Congress with incumbent re-election rates so high, Hutchison suggested replacing our current system with a United Kingdom-style parliamentary slate system, where candidates are not directly elected.
After that, another soon-to-be ex-politician was joining the Both Sides crusade: At a panel on women’s health issues, Bob Deuell, looking more unhappy to be at an event than anyone you’ve ever seen—presumably, he agreed to do this before getting crushed by an accused wife-beater in his primary runoff—told the crowd that he, personally, might have gone along with less stringent abortion regs last summer, but “no one was willing to compromise,” he said, putting the blame for the expansive restrictions on the pro-choice crowd. “The extremes on both sides” were responsible for what happened last summer. It’s a pretty weird rewriting of history. Democrats didn’t have any leverage during the special session. But he kept saying it, over and over, as he stared at his lap.
Molly White, a pro-life activist who’ll be representing House District 55 after November, spoke about her two abortions, and her contention that they were responsible for her descent into drug and alcohol addiction. She opened the panel by flashing a picture of a woman who “died on the abortion table.”
When moderator Emily Ramshaw told White that there was a very low complication rate from abortion, White batted it down. She knew that was wrong, from “my personal experience and from the testimony of hundreds and hundreds of women across the country.”
Austin Rep. Dawnna Dukes, in no mood to dance around, told White that “it’s a personality type that would turn to drugs and alcohol,” and White’s issues didn’t come from an abortion. White: “If you haven’t had an abortion, you can’t say that.”
“Well guess what,” Dukes said. “I have had an abortion.” The room erupted in cheers and applause. She didn’t have any subsequent psychological problems, she said.
The day after, Deuell unloaded on Dukes in the comments of an article about the incident. “Given her views and some comments she made yesterday and in the past,” Deuell wrote, “one might argue whether Dukes has suffered from her abortion.”
Dukes responded: “I sure will not miss you in the legislature. May God keep you, may God bless your sweet heart and I wish you all the best in your next endeavor.”
Some issues, it seems, can’t be talked out. In Texas, that might be most issues. The last event of the festival was also the most highly anticipated—an hour long sit-down between Gov. Rick Perry, he of the recent legal problems, and Smith. He followed a discussion by national journalists who seemed to pooh-pooh Perry’s 2016 chances. One said GOP donors were saying privately that they hoped Perry wouldn’t come calling for money.
In the interview, he seemed slightly muddled. He brought a small placard that showed the state’s job growth. He bizarrely claimed comedian Joan Rivers would be alive if she’d had surgery inside an ambulatory surgical center, except she had. He came out as a fan of both regulation and the press. Asked about the abortion bills last summer: “There are going to be rules and regulations put into place that you don’t agree with,” he said, adding that it was “important to respect those decisions.” (Nobody tell the EPA.)
More interesting, though, was what Perry wouldn’t talk about: his recent indictments. To be fair, there are some things Perry can’t say about his legal problems. But he’s also shot off his mouth about the indictments recently more times than you can count. He’s happy to talk about it on his terms. Here was a setting in which he would be gently challenged on some of his contentions. Smith started asking:
“That issue has been probably as reported on as much as anything that I’ve ever done in my public life,” he said. “And everything has been said about it that I’m going to say about it.”
Smith tried again. “I think everything that I am gonna say about the activities is pretty much done,” Perry said.
Again: “Everything has been said about that and I’ll refer you back to the press reports about it.”
One more time: “I will tell you that it’s already been addressed and I’m not going to be adding anything new to it because there’s nothing new to add to it.”
The speech imbalance in Texas politics exists at this festival, too, but it still might be the best corrective we have—even if its audience is pretty small. Davis did immeasurably better during her keynote than she did at the McAllen debate on Friday—she was more natural, more compelling and more incisive. It was a better airing of her views than we’ve seen so far. Van de Putte outshone Patrick in her session—she’s a natural and effective communicator. But the festival’s over, so we’re back to the quiet.
Tonight, Greg Abbott was interviewed by a team of reporters in McAllen. The interesting thing about this interview, which sets it apart from others, is that Wendy Davis was being interviewed at the same time. They even sat close to each other.
Campaigning in Texas is a very strange affair these days. Most Republican nominees, assured of victory, hide: There’s nothing else needed to win. So we can credit Greg Abbott for a willingness to take part in a debate, I suppose, except this wasn’t really a debate. It was more of a structured Q&A with lots of TV cameras. The two candidates didn’t really engage each other—the format didn’t allow them much space to do so. The moderators didn’t ask any follow-up questions and the candidates only asked each other one question apiece. It was, for the most part, a recitation of talking points. The whole thing went down on a Friday evening during high school football season—a great time if you want to minimize viewership.
All Abbott needed to do in this debate was keep words coming out of his mouth in relative order, and this was a charge that he took with the utmost seriousness. There were no “gaffes.” Yes, many of the things he said didn’t make too much sense—like when he seemed to credit the deployment of the state’s National Guard deployment for SpaceX’s decision, years in the making, to build a launch site in Brownsville.
A lot of things about Abbott’s performance seemed … off. There were the little things, like when he mixed up the name of one of the moderators, but anyone could do that. There was something odd about the way Abbott talked: the way he related the story about “visiting with a young Latina of about college age” who “begged and pleaded” with him to secure the border. It was odd, too, how frequently he referenced his Hispanic in-laws to answer questions about issues in the RGV: as if he was saying, Some of my best family members are Mexican-American…
In truth, if this were not Texas, Greg Abbott had a debate performance to feel mildly insecure about. But this is Texas: The bar is very, very low here. We’re a couple of weeks away from the general election, and we still don’t know very much about Greg Abbott. Who is he? What motivates him? What kind of governor would he be?
If Davis did better, she didn’t shine. It’s still remarkable how much Davis feels the need to tack right on many issues, like the border, or the death penalty. She touted several times that she wanted “boots on the ground” on the border, just maybe not Perry’s National Guard deployment. She again called for a special session on the border crisis. Davis said she was a staunch supporter of the death penalty.
She was more aggressive, turning to Abbott at one point and blasting him for for cozying up to Ted Nugent. She accused Abbott of wanting to standardize test four-year-olds and said that if parents wanted to change that they’d need to form a PAC, hire a lobbyist and make a political contribution to the Abbott campaign. One of her best lines came when she told Abbott that cutting $5 billion from public education wasn’t liberal or conservative but “just dumb.”
Davis highlighted her core issues: Her advocacy for pre-K programs, raising the minimum wage, equal pay laws. She hit Abbott—or as much as she could, given the format.
The spin from Abbott’s team post-debate is that Davis had a “meltdown” and “talked over the moderator.” In fact it was one of the few moments that a debate threatened to break out—before the moderator cut her off.
All in all, it’s hard to see how the debate moves the needle for either candidate. But it’s Davis who needs the upset. Abbott is content to play it safe and not make any unforced errors.
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples at the 2012 Texas GOP Convention in Fort Worth.
Todd Staples, the state’s agriculture commissioner, is cashing his chips in. He’s leaving office now, instead of in January, so he can become president of that great advocate for our state’s agriculture industry, the Texas Oil and Gas Association. It’s hard to blame Staples: He’s gone as far as he can go up the political ladder—he placed third in the GOP lt. governor primary earlier this year—and this is a guarantee of a very comfortable life post-politics. (Though in a statement, Staples couched his decision in terms of his desire to “continue to fight for Texas to be the leader in our national and world economy.”)
But it’s worth reflecting on Staples’ legacy. He’s held the ag commish post for eight years, but his pursuit of promotion has been all-consuming. Now that he missed his chance, what does it all add up to?
For years, Staples’ overriding public concern has been border security, a non-traditional focus for agriculture commissioners. That was his springboard to higher office, he reckoned, and he went in big. Here’s the Observer’s Melissa del Bosque, from 2011:
Not long ago, Staples commissioned an $80,000 “strategic military assessment” of the Texas border. The Ag Commissioner released the 182-page tome, written by two retired generals, yesterday in a press conference at the Texas Capitol.
If you hadn’t heard, Staples is running for Lieutenant Governor in 2014. For the past year, the Ag Commissioner has been beating the war drums and burnishing his border security credentials. Last March, he unveiled a fancy, new taxpayer-funded Web site called “Protect Your Texas Border” which offers such highlights as night-vision surveillance chases of drug traffickers along the Rio Grande and a video interview with a Texas Ranger who proclaims: “We are in a war and I am not going to sugarcoat it by any means. We are in a war, and it is what it is.”
The website quickly became a PR embarrassment for Staples when its message board was flooded by people with helpful tips for fighting border violence:
User jcarrott suggests: “The most well known fighters of our Revolutionary war were not trained, they used hide and shot tactics that would work great today… If we — Americans — start shooting the bad guys, they will get the message!”
2$Bill offers methods like “watch groups, community patrols, land mines, tiger traps and roving packs of rabid [weasels].”
BTKKilla is more succinct, advising: “Killem all!!!! They are destroying or great country.”
Later, Staples used agriculture department money to purchase video cameras for the border, to the tune of $345,000. When Ted Cruz helped shut down the government last year, Texas farmers suffered. So Staples used his bully pulpit:
The government shutdown in October postponed the release of that month’s USDA crop report, which traders, distributors and farmers use to make important business decisions. Cotton prices fell 4.4 percent in the first week of the shutdown—a dramatic change that some pegged to the missing crop report. That price drop hurt already-struggling Texas cotton farmers.
Todd Staples was worried about the shutdown, too. The day before it ended, his office released a statement and two letters he had sent to U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, urging them to restore funding—for the U.S. Border Patrol. “I commend Congress for the current stand against Obamacare,” he wrote to Sen. Cruz, on Department of Agriculture stationary. “In the fray regarding the current shutdown, there are many questions about what are the essential functions of the government. Border security is absolutely at the top of the list.” Then he plugged his website.
Staples wanted to take the second-highest post in the state on the back of this kind of thing. But Dan Patrick skillfully outflanked him on the border, and it all came to naught. Old politicians don’t die—they just flail away.
Staples’ border activism has consumed almost the entirety of his tenure as commissioner—well, there’s also his long-lived anti-gay marriage activism. So where does that leave us as a state? What can we say Staples accomplished?
Staples’ probable successor—barring a shock landslide for Jim Hogan—is Sid Miller, who’s essentially already told us he’s gunning for the next job, too. He’ll make Staples look like Abraham Lincoln.