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Hooks on Politics

Rick Perry addresses a joint session of the Legislature near the end of his final term in office.
Christopher Hooks
Rick Perry addresses a joint session of the Legislature near the end of his final term in office.

A child born when Rick Perry became governor of Texas would now be in her freshman year of high school: The guv’s been with us for so long that it’s difficult to remember what life was like before his immaculately-coiffed visage appeared atop the state’s public life in that gleaming, pre-9/11 interregnum between the Clinton and W. Bush administrations. But now, he’s finally, finally, finally leaving.

Governor Goodhair, as the Observer’s Molly Ivins used to call him, said goodbye to the Texas Legislature today, where he’d gotten his start some 30 years ago. He’s been governor so long that we’ve seen several different iterations of Perry, as if he were a teenager exploring new trends—there was the handsome young fellow who was elevated to governor thanks in large part to Karl Rove and Bush-era machinations, but who nobody expected to last this long. He went through a more heavily Christian phase during the Bush years, and then joined the Tenthers. After his run for president, he bought glasses, and fashioned himself into the kind of man who wears glasses confidently.

This was an opportunity to wrap it all up into a cohesive whole—as well as all that had happened in the last decade and a half—and he made the attempt. The soaring eagle of Texas had flown through the canyon of adversity and found itself in the gentle forests of triumph. He quoted Lincoln, and recounted his biography and Texas’ job numbers.

“Texas doesn’t recognize artificial barriers of race, class, or creed. The most vivid dreams take flight from the most humble beginnings. And so it was for me,” he said. From Paint Creek, a mighty tree had grown, a tree named Perry. The Legislature, he said, was in the “business of making dreams possible. Every dream counts, every child matters, and in Texas, every child has a chance.”

His Texas had been tested, by the disintegration of a space shuttle—he meant Columbia, but called it Challenger—hurricanes, wildfires, Ebola and Central American teenagers. But Texans were a “people whose character has been refined by fire, whose souls are resilient, who respond to tragedy with grace and who look to the future with hope.”

There were a few digs at Barry O—“We do not accept the false choice the president offers between protecting the environment and declaring war on American industry”—a few brags on Texas’ cultural growth since 2000—more theater seats, performing arts centers, South by Southwest and Formula One.

He touted efforts that took place during his tenure on criminal sentencing reform, and he urged the next Legislature to “get beyond our differences and seek common ground,” which is the kind of thing a politician is expected to say when he’s about to leave office, even if he’s never cared about it much before. “Compromise is not a dirty word if it moves Texas forward.”

He praised Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick and Joe Straus, and said he knows the “future is in good hands.” His final admonition: “Be true to Texas, always, and she will be true to you. Good luck, Godspeed, God bless you, and through you, may God bless Texas.” He took his wife Anita by the hand and descended the stairs, to healthy applause.

Goodbye, governor. We’ll see you in Iowa.

Senate Education Committee chair Dan Patrick (R-Houston)
Patrick Michels
Sen. Dan Patrick presides over a committee meeting.

At a press conference this morning, Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick announced a new pillar of his transition: the creation of six advisory boards, filled with businesspeople, to guide him on public policy. At first, that might sound useful. The business community as a whole has sometimes been a helpful voice in favor of transportation, water infrastructure and education spending.

But the list of names Patrick released today aren’t neutral technocrats and disinterested businesspeople—many are longtime GOP donors, and many have a strong personal interest in what the state does and doesn’t do. As a whole, the six panels—economic and workforce development, economic forecasting, energy/oil & gas, tax policy, transportation and water—represent a potential rat’s nest of conflicts of interest and influence peddling.

At the press conference, Patrick touted the boards as an unprecedented effort to close the ever-narrowing gap between the public and private sectors. He was proud, he said, to be able to reach out to a marginalized and voiceless community in Texas: big business. Often in Texas, Patrick said, “the private sector is asked for help by a candidate but after they get elected, there’s not much follow up.”

He asked: “Why would you want a legislative body to disconnect themselves from the private sector?” Pointing to the fact that the state’s legislators work part-time and need to find income elsewhere, he said of the Legislature: “We’re all in business.” Indeed!

The boards, which will meet privately, will be called upon by the lieutenant governor to give advice, but will also generate their own policy proposals. Patrick said he wouldn’t be shy about telling the public which proposals had come from the advisory panels. One major proposal already has.

Last week, Patrick released a rough draft of his agenda—among big-picture items like education reform and transportation funding, he included a curious provision. The state should strengthen and support the market for natural gas, Patrick said. Twenty percent of new vehicles purchased by state agencies should run on compressed natural gas, or CNG.

Today, Patrick said, his new love of natural gas had come from conversations with business leaders, like his new friends on the energy/oil & gas advisory board. The leader of the board is Dallas billionaire T. Boone Pickens, who for years has heavily invested in natural gas and has attempted, with limited success, to expand the market share of CNG vehicles.

His California-based company, Clean Energy Fuels Corp., has been angling to become a CNG leader. In January of 2014, the Los Angeles Times reported that Clean Energy was losing money and in need of finding new vehicle fleets it could serve.

Natural gas vehicles might well be a great idea, but that’s beside the point—the inclusion of people who stand to make money by advocating certain policies in the policy-making process in this very public way is problematic on its face. At a minimum, many citizens will perceive it as cronyism.

You see the potential for conflicts of interest up and down Patrick’s boards. Also on the energy/oil & gas panel are Tim Dunn, the Midland oilman who single-handedly finances important parts of the state’s conservative network, and who has been in a war with House Speaker Joe Straus for years, and Javaid Anwar, another Midland oilman and GOP donor who gave heavily to Rick Perry’s presidential run.

Then there’s Brint Ryan, who will lead Patrick’s new tax policy advisory board. He’s a tax consultant who specializes in helping companies like Raytheon and ExxonMobil win Texas tax breaks. He is, in other words, one of the top practitioners of what the left and tea party alike call “corporate welfare.” And, of course, he’s a major GOP donor—he gave $250,000 to Rick Perry’s presidential campaign effort alone.

Ned Holmes, who will lead Patrick’s transportation panel, is a Houston real estate developer, a major GOP donor, and a prominent supporter of Greg Abbott. He’s not exactly new to state government—someone who can bring fresh, outside ideas into play. He donated almost $200,000 to Rick Perry before Perry appointed him to the Texas Transportation Commission in 2007, where he made a special effort to support projects favored by Houston developers like himself. He’s a current board member of the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas. He has a strange and slightly cryptic business history.

There are 55 names on this morning’s list in total—the above is what resulted from a cursory scan and a few quick searches.

This morning, Patrick touted the panels as being like a “team of rivals,” the name of a Doris Kearns Goodwin book that describes how Abraham Lincoln convened political enemies to serve in his cabinet. Not all of the figures on the panels were his supporters, he said. But there’s only one notable Democrat, Alonzo Cantu from McAllen. The rest might not have supported him in his last primary, but it would seem highly likely that they’ll be donors next time.

Of course, influence peddling is not new to the Legislature, and we’ve had these kinds of advisory panels before—Patrick’s spokesman pointed to one in 1981. But this feels new, if only in scope. And it’s already affecting the policies the 84th Legislature generates.

In the past, a lieutenant governor might have tried to obscure, if only superficially, the fact that he took policy direction from some of the state’s richest oilmen. But Patrick’s approach is, in a way, a classically Texas approach: Make influence-peddling transparent, and, suddenly, it doesn’t seem so bad. Now, it’s the seamless interchange of ideas and policies between the public and private sector. Don’t you feel better already?

State Rep. Scott Turner speaks to party faithful at the 2014 state Republican convention.
Timothy Faust
State Rep. Scott Turner speaks to party faithful at the 2014 state Republican convention.

For a year, Scott Turner had been campaigning for House Speaker. He’d been campaigning in tiny tea party meeting rooms across the state and he had campaigned at the state Republican convention, where a vast trove of Turner-branded trinkets were distributed to the faithful. He was the champion of the considerable and monied machinery that had been trying to undo House Speaker Joe Straus, who’s carefully maintained a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans since he was elected to the position by his fellow representatives six years ago.

Turner had the backing of the tea party faithful, who he’d told he would help protect from a menacing and darkening world. He had the backing of the Christian right, whose leadership has never been altogether too comfortable with the fact that Straus is Jewish. He even had the backing of a number of senators, who spoke strongly in his favor at a rally yesterday. But he didn’t have the support of the only people who mattered in the end—the members of the House. And so he got trampled today, 127 to 19.

First, though, came a series of not-too-titillating speeches—four Straus allies, including Democrat Rene Oliveira (D-Brownsville), emphasized his record and policy credentials, while four Turner allies talked about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, and invoked Shakespeare and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (To be fair, the last three belonged to Fort Worth’s Matt Krause.)

It was unsurprising to anyone who’d been paying attention to the Lege, but it was still a margin Straus could feel good about. The House—while by no means a liberal body, or even that moderate—will serve as a check on the Senate’s most conservative instincts this year.

Amy Zimmerman, a Turner supporter from Grayson County who traveled down with the McKinney Tea Party, found herself wandering around the Capitol’s library after the vote in her Scott Turner t-shirt. She said the result wasn’t a surprise, but she still seemed a little emotional.

“We’re having an issue with what the people want, and what the legislators want,” she said, adding that conservatives like her, who have just emerged from their most successful election cycle in the state’s history, are “frustrated and at the breaking point.”

The representatives were scared, and they wouldn’t do what was right. Everyone knew what was right, she said. What had Straus done to frustrate people like her so much? He’d held up bills “on gun rights and Sharia law.” Straus’ “cronies” had killed them. Corruption carried the day whenever Devil Joe held the gavel.

Even tea party reps like Giovanni Capriglione (R-South Lake) had let them down. Maybe, some tea partiers have said, they need to be replaced. So tomorrow—with Tim Dunn’s money—they’d start anew. Straus’ allies were less solemn. When it came time to vote, Jason Embry, the speaker’s spokesman, tweeted: “Remember this moment.”

Comptroller Glenn Hegar
Comptroller Glenn Hegar

The legislative session won’t kick off in earnest until tomorrow, but the starting pistol shot came today, when new Comptroller Glenn Hegar released his first biennial revenue estimate. It’s Hegar’s job to predict the levels of funding the state can count on for each biennial budget period, and his estimates set the boundaries of the Legislature’s budget negotiations. He’s basically asked to predict the future and set a ceiling on how much lawmakers can spend.

A number of Lege-watchers, including a number of legislators, expected Hegar to produce a fairly conservative budget estimate. In 2011, the office dramatically overcorrected during the economic slowdown, and the Legislature ended up having to make a lot of unnecessary cuts, especially to public education. The recent oil shock, and some unhappy predictions for the state from a number of national economists, had some thinking that the comptroller’s office would once again play it safe.

But Hegar’s estimate is comparatively rosy, actually. The comptroller’s office estimates that the state is going to pull in a little over $110 billion dollars during the next biennium, plus $7.5 billion in “surplus” revenue at the end of the current one. With $5 billion of that $110 billion being split between the state highway fund and the state’s rainy day fund, the men and women of the 84th session will have, Hegar says, about $113 billion for the next budget.

To put that into perspective, the budget for the 2014-15 biennium was about $95 billion. According to the left-leaning think tank Center for Public Policy Priorities, it would take $101 billion this session just to maintain the level of services that were provided for in the old budget—new money needed in part because of the state’s rapid population growth. But that would still leave $12 billion for legislators to play with.
why-it-counts

On one hand, it’s not a crisis budget, and it’s not one that will require legislators to make cuts (though they might anyway.) The office of Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick released a brief statement that characterized the comptroller’s estimate as a green light for his agenda, which has included the promise of significant tax cuts: It provided “adequate revenue to secure our border, provide property and business tax relief while focusing on education and infrastructure. I intend to accomplish these goals.”

On the other, the “surplus” is a lot less than it looks at first glance, in part because the amount of budget trickery the Legislature has employed over the years. Gov.-elect Greg Abbott and Patrick have called for ending road funding diversions and making the Texas Department of Transportation whole again. But about $3 billion in additional revenue is needed to end diversions, and TxDOT says it needs an additional $5 billion just to keep the system at the current level of congestion—that is, without making any forward progress.

In education, the state has not yet gotten back to the level of funding that preceded 2011’s gargantuan cuts to public ed—a portion was restored in 2013, but a significant amount of money is needed even beyond what was the case in 2011, thanks to population growth. And it’s unclear how proposed voucher programs would affect the system’s overall cost.

And then there’s tax cuts. The truly sweeping tax overhauls that were talked about during the election, like substituting property taxes for increased sales taxes, seem to have fallen off the radar for now. In the past, GOP lawmakers of all stripes have passed minor tax bills and sold them to the voters as massive ones. That may be Patrick’s play, but even modest tax reductions will shave the “surplus” down in a hurry.

On the general state of the economy, Hegar told reporters that he didn’t see Texas heading toward a recession this year. The economy, he said, “will continue to expand, but at a much slower pace than we’ve seen recently.” His estimate, he said, was premised on the price for a barrel of oil returning to $65 a barrel in the last four months of this year, with it continuing an upward trajectory thereafter. That’s roughly in line with Goldman Sachs’ projection, though the Houston Chronicle’s Chris Tomlinson reported industry speculation that the price slump would last 18 months to two years. A lot depends on how it unwinds.

The bottom line: The budgetary picture legislators will be pondering as the session starts is not nearly as bad as it might have been—but it remains difficult to see the state fully coping with long-standing under-investment in schools, roads and social services.

Perry's eagerness and Gingrich's grim affect provided a strong contrast.
TPPF
Perry's eagerness and Gingrich's grim affect provided a strong contrast.

Today’s attendees of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s pre-session policy conference were treated to an unusual privilege—the chance to see two figures at the bleeding edge of Republican politics in the same room. Yes, you got it right: Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich, together again. The two sat for a lunchtime talk with Stephen Moore of the Heritage Foundation.

Every public appearance Perry makes these days is an opportunity to gauge how much progress he’s made since the “oops” days. In his formal speeches, and in media appearances, the answer is “not much,” more often than not. When he’s suitably relaxed and in a casual setting, like today, it’s a bit more complicated. You can see parts of his personality that would do well in another presidential run, and Newt’s dour presence on stage helped highlight them.

And boy, does Perry want it. Both men flamed out in the 2012 presidential election, but it’s easy to forget that Gingrich—who even at the time seemed to be one of the numerous GOP candidates who run for president solely to refresh their personal brand and juice their future speaking fees—did significantly better than Perry, who was running in earnest. Gingrich won two states, South Carolina and Georgia; Perry won some punchlines.

But Gingrich, who gives off a weirdly antisocial vibe much of the time, clearly doesn’t care anymore, if he ever did. Slumped in his chair like an overstuffed tourist in a beach chair, he launched into periodic wordy invective of the kind that briefly charmed Southern voters during the last go-round.

The EPA, he intoned to his audience, was a tool of “liberal ideological implementation” purposefully designed to destroy American industry. He called New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio a “quintessential nut-case left-wing fantasist,” while Perry, momentarily distracted, played with his fingertips. When Gingrich was asked for the first three things he would do as president, Gingrich told the crowd he agreed with Perry’s list, then told the audience they should buy his friend’s recently-written thriller, Day of Wrath, a chilling tale about ISIS and the Mexican border.

If Gingrich was dour, Perry was a bit of a doofus, but not in an altogether unappealing way. He had no books to sell. He spoke about the need for Republicans to peel away Democratic constituencies with a message of opportunity: The party of the donkey had failed to craft an economic message for the middle and working class, and his experience in Texas, he said, would allow him to take advantage.

But the party had to “not take the bait on social issues that pull us apart.” That wasn’t advice he had followed in his last campaign, when his advisors responded to a slide in popularity with crude gay-baiting. But he seemed to believe it well enough today.

In formal settings, Perry comes off as stiff and a little lost: Today, he wore the sunny effusiveness that wins rooms. While Gingrich dropped references to Faulkner and grimly intoned about the country’s future, Perry impressed upon the crowd his marketable background: “When the child of tenant farmers can become governor of Texas, that’s a great story.”

And while Gingrich talked about the necessity of getting teens to work to keep them out of gangs—”Benjamin Franklin was apprenticed when he was 13”—Perry told the room that “the best days of this country, the best days of this state are in front of us.”

He leaned eagerly toward the crowd to speak, and toward Gingrich when Newt spoke. When he concluded his last riff on the universality of the “Texas model”—he’s made a decision not to call it a miracle anymore—he clenched his fist in satisfaction with his message and delivery.

Still, it’s possible to imagine this Perry impressing rooms full of Iowans and South Carolinians. And though the 14-year governor might feel like old news, it’s worth remembering that the two GOPers most in the news now for their 2016 prospects, Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney, both last held office in 2007.

Dan Patrick and Greg Abbott at Ken Paxton's inauguration, January 5, 2015.
Christopher Hooks
Dan Patrick and Greg Abbott at Ken Paxton's inauguration, January 5, 2015.

When the 84th Legislature kicks off next week, the state’s new elected officials will be competing with each other for influence over the state’s finances. Each has proposals and pet policy priorities they owe their constituents—or lobbyists—after a lengthy election. The problem: Almost all of them require money. And there’s not that much to go around. The state’s budget is stretched thin even in good years, and more money is needed all the time to keep pace with population growth—and that’s even before you factor in a potential economic slowdown brought about by the oil slump.

Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick released the first draft of his agenda Thursday, at a press conference at the Capitol. In the plan, Patrick redoubles his call for tax cuts for property owners and businesses, calls for adding new spending restrictions to the state budget process, and pushes for significant changes in education, transportation, energy and border policy.

It’s an ambitious platform.

And it comes at a time when the fiscal situation is tightening. The comptroller’s revenue estimate, which restricts the maximum possible size of the state’s budget, doesn’t come out till next week—but there’s a lot of speculation about how crashing oil prices will affect the Texas economy. In 2011, the comptroller’s office overcorrected for a perceived economic slowdown, and the Legislature cut state services needlessly.

The political perception of the economic climate seems to matter a great deal to the comptroller’s estimates, and some suspect the oil shock will clip the wings of Texas’ recent economic growth. Legislators have been counting on a modest surplus this year—though, because of longstanding accounting trickery, even that would have amounted to less than it seemed. But now, even that small windfall may be dissipating a bit.

In this environment, Patrick could’ve scaled back some of his most expensive proposals—in particular, his calls for major tax cuts. But, to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, the Dan is not for turning. He’s going full steam ahead. He won with 58 percent of the vote, he said, and he has a mandate for action.

The “people of Texas are very clear on the major issues they care about,” he told reporters yesterday. In response to their demands, he pledged that a “budget with significant dollars allocated for property tax and business tax relief will be passed.” (During his campaign, Patrick talked about raising sales taxes and lowering property taxes—but that didn’t come up.)

He pledged to expand “school choice” in Texas, and to do right by “parents in the inner cities trapped in failing schools.” By the end of the session, the state would fund “border security at the highest level we’ve ever funded it.” He’d fund programs to support math and science teachers, and medical students, and he’d work the slow the skyrocketing cost of college tuition, calling tuition deregulation a failure.

He called for the state to begin adopting a fleet of natural gas vehicles, and he echoed Greg Abbott’s plan to end road funding diversions and increase transportation funding.

All of this costs money, which either has to come from surplus tax revenue—we’ll find out how much the state actually has next week—or from elsewhere in the state budget. In the case of the transportation funding diversions—money that’s rerouted to the Texas Department of Transportation from other beneficiaries, like the Department of Public Safety—budget-writers have to scrounge up dollars from somewhere else, and so on and so on. Large tax cuts and additional money for services are not compatible goals, especially in a biennium in which the state’s economic prospects are fading a bit.

If legislators end up fighting for pieces of a smaller pie, Patrick will want to ensure that his priorities have a leg up on others. We’ve long known that Patrick would be consolidating GOP power in the Senate—he’s aiming to change longstanding rules that gave Democrats some leverage in the legislative process, and he’s likely to strip Democrats of control of powerful Senate committees.

But there’s another way Patrick is making himself a more important player in the legislative process—the Texas Tribune’s Ross Ramsey reported Wednesday that Patrick was likely to cut the number of Senate committees from 18 to 12, and would be appointing committee chairs later this month, instead of in February, as has normally been in the case.

As Ramsey writes, this means the Senate could be up and running much faster than the House, “perhaps setting up a flow of Senate bills to the lower chamber before the House is ready to send anything back.” It’s a not-so-subtle way of trying to get the jump on Speaker Straus and the House’s own priorities—and it foreshadows an uneasy relationship between the two chambers in the months to come.

There’s one other thing Patrick mentioned today—he pledged to continue the halt in funding for the Public Integrity Unit, the ethics watchdog that operates out of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office and was at the center of the conflict that led to Rick Perry’s indictment by a special prosecutor.

The fact that the PIU showed up on Patrick’s agenda along with weighty issues like education and transportation tells you how important it is to a lot of GOPers. The Senate, Patrick said, would decide what to do with the PIU’s funding. One option, Patrick said, would be to give it to Attorney General Ken Paxton so he could bolster his own ethics outfit. Paxton, you might remember, stands a good chance of being under indictment himself by the time the Legislature appoints him the new guardian of civic virtue. It’s going to be an interesting year.

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

 

During last year’s elections, Ken Paxton sometimes felt like the odd man out. After trampling his opponents in the Republican primary for attorney general, Paxton admitted to violating state securities law—a potential felony—after unethical business dealings surfaced in the press. He stopped campaigning, more or less, and his fellow ticket-mates, like soon-to-be governor Greg Abbott, shied away.

But he was carried across the finish line, sure enough, and today, at a star-studded inauguration in the Texas Senate, he was welcomed back as a member of the state GOP in full standing. A felony indictment may still be coming—but as the state’s new top lawman, he’s had a pretty unusual rise to the highest echelon of state power.

On hand to celebrate Paxton’s ascension were a who’s who of Republican leaders. Sitting behind the lieutenant governor’s dais at the front of the chamber were David Dewhurst, its current occupant, and Dan Patrick, his soon-to-be successor. Rick Perry was present. Ted Cruz, Perry’s presumptive 2016 rival, was there too. (This was, in part, a Cruz moment: Paxton was his candidate, and his election marks another half-step in the transformation of the state’s political landscape in Cruz’s image.) And there was Greg Abbott, though he seemed dwarfed by his compatriots.

There were, in other words, a lot of bruised and competing egos in the Senate today. The men seemed in a rush to outdo each other in their effusive praise for Paxton: Dewhurst said the new attorney general would be “sustained” by his Christian faith, while Patrick told the crowd he knew in his bones that Paxton would be “first and foremost a servant to his lord and savior, Jesus Christ.”

Perry, our state’s chief lay minister, led the crowd in prayer, in which he managed to slip in a few digs at the president. And Cruz outdid them all, thanking Abbott for his protection of Texas against the “United Nations and the World Court,” along with those pesky feds, and predicted Paxton would do the same.

This was technically Paxton’s show, but his speech, delivered in his typically lethargic style, will not long be remembered. Why are Barack Obama’s federales coming for Texas, he asked? It’s “because we’ve been successful,” he says. But he’s not too worried, because Texas, the “shining city on a hill” that Reagan mentioned that one time in that speech, is strong, and also, our Founding Fathers persevered through the storm with the spirit of 1776, and we rose up to fight those two world wars, and you know, all that good stuff. God bless our great state.

Ken Paxton with his family
Christopher Hooks
Paxton with family

A large number of Paxton’s family were in attendance—his wife sang the national anthem—and they can be suitably proud. The boy from McKinney (well, he was born in some place called Minot, North Dakota but that’s not important here) has done good, in spite of himself. And perhaps the large turnout of notable conservatives today is a sign that if and when the indictment comes down, the party will stand by him.

The closest analogue to Paxton in recent Texas history might be Jim Mattox, the sleazy Democratic populist who took control of the attorney general’s office in 1983 and was indicted just nine months later. Can our humble champion beat Mattox’s record? Today, pomp and circumstance; but the clock is ticking.

Texas State Capitol in Austin, Tex.
Patrick Michels
Texas State Capitol in Austin

Gather round, boys and girls: The 84th Texas Legislature is close at hand. Our state, much as it did at the beginning of the 83rd and 82nd and 81st and so on and so on, sits at a crossroads. Down one side of the fork, we see a future of good government, long-term planning and legislative restraint. Down the other, we have … not that.

Monday was the first day bills can be filed for next session, an occasion which is now rung in annually by the filing of state Rep. Tom Craddick’s (R-Midland) probably-doomed-again push to make texting while driving illegal. Hundreds of bills have been filed so far, and some are predictable: Democrats are lining up to repeal anti-same-sex-marriage measures. Republicans are lining up to pass open carry laws. There’s a wide variety of technocratic fixes on both sides of the aisle. Here are a few of the stranger ones.

Newly elected tea party state Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas) has produced an extraordinary oddity in Senate Bill 62, which would require the state’s comptroller to produce a detailed invoice totaling up the cost of illegal immigration to the state—and then would require the comptroller and attorney general to present the invoice together to the feds. If the federals don’t pay up, Huffines would have the state turn up the heat:

After the submission, the comptroller and the attorney general shall use every means available to collect from the federal government the amount requested by the invoice, including by withholding any payments of money this state owes to the federal government in a total amount not to exceed the amount requested.

And if the comptroller doesn’t go along with Huffines’ scheme and compile an invoice? Under the bill’s provisions, the comptroller’s office would have $25,000 of its funding cut every day. Huffines, apparently, thinks government should work mostly via extortion.

Just as thought-through is Huffines’ Senate Joint Resolution 6, a proposed constitutional amendment that would provide term limits for Texas legislators—three full terms for senators, and six full terms for representatives, or 12 years each. Odder are the provisions that would also impose a 72-month cap on the speaker of the House, as well as committee chairmanships, where accumulated expertise is generally considered an asset.

These bills have as much chance of surviving the Legislature as a polar bear in Death Valley, but it’s a fun confirmation that Huffines, like a number of new senators, isn’t going to develop a reputation for subtlety.

State Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Van), who pledged to deal a fatal blow to the specter of Sharia law in Texas a few months back, doesn’t have a bill along those lines yet: But he does have legislation to kill daylight savings time, ensure teachers can place the Ten Commandments in a “prominent position” in classrooms, and establish a 14-member “joint nullification committee” to determined which federal laws are unconstitutional and should be nullified in the state. OK, man.

There are more substantial bills, of course. Among them, state Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) proposes raising the minimum wage to $10.10—though that measure has little chance of making it to the floor, either.

The most consequential bills filed yesterday have to do with the state’s revenue structure. The state’s tax base is growing, and legislators never fully restored the sweeping spending cuts they made in 2011. Which means they have money to play with—they can either restore funding to state services, or cut taxes yet again. From Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick on down, the latter impulse seems to have more momentum.

State Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown), who is climbing up the senate ranks as the new head of the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services, has a bill out that would raise the state’s franchise tax exemption to $5 million.

This “fiscally responsible approach,” Schwertner said in a statement, would provide tax relief while “still maintaining a balanced budget,” because it would only deprive the state of $880 million dollars in revenue each biennium. That’s a hefty chunk of change. But, Schwertner’s office says, it’s certainly more “responsible” than proposals that would “eliminate the franchise tax entirely.” Expect to hear a lot of that kind of reasoning this session.

Oh, and here’s a bonus: One fun subplot in Austin these last few months has been the efforts of the Texas Ethics Commission to enhance disclosure requirements for dark-money groups like the one run by Michael Quinn Sullivan, the conservative kneecapper and would-be powerbroker who’s been struggling mightily to unseat House Speaker Joe Straus.

In past sessions, state Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth) and state Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) were key supporters of dark-money disclosure bills. Seliger’s proposal zipped along in 2013, until it was vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry. Geren told the San Antonio Express-News in January his first bill this session would be about dark money disclosure, but neither he nor Seliger have filed one yet.

But incoming state Sen. Van Taylor, a Sullivan-aligned tea-party-type who’s replacing Ken Paxton in the upper chamber, proposes a constitutional amendment that would give the Legislature authority to tweak and alter rules passed by state agencies. The Ethics Commission isn’t singled out—the wording of the amendment is broad—but just the other week, Van Taylor signed a letter condemning TEC’s rulemaking process, and it makes sense that the two would be related. It’s going to be a down-and-dirty session.

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Twitter

Do you remember the olden times, before Election? Fruit grew on every tree, and children’s laughter came from every hall and bough. There was brisket on every slab, a truck in every garage, and every Manuel was king. What a golden time it was—a gone time.

This is how we live now. This is our true-true, for another 4.5 days. Help us. Anybody. Help us?

Please?

1) After the election, we’ll be faced with a difficult task: We must rebuild. Fortunately, a friendly Japanese conglomerate has come up with a plan to connect Dallas and Houston with a high-speed train.

Now, Texas conservatives hate trains. Goddamn, do they hate trains. You wouldn’t believe how much they hate trains. But most of that hatred of trains is premised on the fact that governments usually have to spend money to build and maintain them, unlike highways, which are conjured by a paste made from pixie dust and black tar. But the Japanese rail proposal involves no public funds, so they’ll love it, right?

In steps Thelma Taormina, past-life Viking and current leader of the We The People Are The 9-12 Association, Inc./We Surround Them in Houston (real name). Taormina once gained fame for pulling a gun on a guy who tried to install an electrical “smart meter” at her home. But now she’s heard about the Far-Easterners and their train. She’s mobilizing. She knows what this is about: It’s the UN.

Everyone who has been on our mailing list for a while now knows that the plan for high-speed rail from Houston to Dallas is a part of a much bigger plan entailing Agenda 21, and a total deception to box us all in to the areas that the elite wish us to live.

Yes, the elite are coming to box us in—to… Houston and Dallas. Nothing says “New World Order” like Houston, a city which can’t even figure out how to use zoning laws. When fascism comes to America, it will swathed in Astros gear and carrying a rail pass.

2) Your humble correspondent has tried to record some of the weirder moments of this year’s nauseating electoral carnival ride, but I don’t think I’ve written or read a single thing stranger than Jonathan Tilove’s hallucinatory chronicle of his time at Greg Abbott rallies in Frisco and Abilene. (That might just be sleep deprivation talking, but I doubt it.) Abbott has come to travel the campaign trail and meet that great mass called “the people,” and Tilove, of the Austin American-Statesman, has tagged along. He meets some friendly fellows:

I arrived early for his appearance at Mattito’s Tex-Mex and was standing by myself amid the milling crowd, when a nattily attired man in sport jacket and tie approached me, looked me up and down, and with a look of disgust said something to the effect of “nice outfit.”

[…]

Unsure of where this was going, I mumbled some kind of apologetic, nondescript reply.

“It looks like you slept in it,” he said. And then, after another look at me, “How many nights?”

[…]

“Typical wacko,” my critic said to me, at me. He turned, walked a few steps away and posted himself. When I turned to look at him he trained a contemptuous glare at me.

Here’s the thing. Journalists—actually, I’m just going to single out male journalists here, though our XX-chromosomed companions are by no means universally excluded—are, as a rule, terrible slobs. Even when we look nice, we don’t look great. But Tilove, given his membership of a generally sad-sack cohort, is, I believe, an above-average sartorialist. I would testify to this belief in court.

I walked over to him and asked, “Did I do something to offend you?”

“Yes,” he said. “Breathe.”

My look betrayed my shock, and so he elaborated, just so I would know my shock was not misplaced.

“You are breathing my oxygen.”

Shaken, I walked away. I went into the men’s room and looked in the mirror. I looked pretty much like I always look, my attire no worse than usual.

From such simple encounters do existential crises emerge.

Solidarity to you, Mr. Tilove.

But that’s not even the weirdest thing that happened to Tilove as he tagged along with the Abbott campaign. In Abilene, Tilove meets a woman named Renee Higgins and her two friends. Comes the question: Fellas, what do you think about things?

“I didn’t have a problem with the liberals until this past six years and I’m sick and tired of everybody saying this is racism and this is not politically correct and I want to tell you, in my opinion, until we put God back in our schools, our homes and our government and our country, we are going to be under judgment,” Hayes said.

Sounds good. Renee, what did you ask General Abbott? A query about West Texas’ water infrastructure needs, perhaps? A critique of his higher education plan? An appeal against high-stakes testing?

Higgins also asked Abbott a second question, about reports she heard of the convicted pedophile murderer in a local prison “who wanted an eight-year-old little boy as his last meal.” “I said to him, ‘Is this a for-real deal, surely they wouldn’t do it,’” and he’s like, ‘No way that’s going to happen.’”

And she said it on camera:

We may not know much about the kind of governor Greg Abbott is going to be, but thanks to the diligent citizen journalism of Madam Higgins, we can say this much: He has taken a strong and decisive stand against cannibal pedophiles.

3) Elsewhere in Frisco news, here’s state Rep. Pat Fallon, whose most notable achievement in public life is a law which allows teachers to say “Merry Christmas,” telling a joke about how Wendy Davis is going to hell:

4) Up in Senate District 10, Democrat Libby Willis, in a tough fight with tea party organizer Konnie Burton for Wendy Davis’ soon-to-be-former Senate seat, has a new mailer out. It’s a great one. Here it is:

libby willis gay mailer

This, Willis boldy declares, is her vision for Texas’ future. In these hale and hearty fellows, we see the full flowering of the Democratic project here in Texas, in a way few candidates have been able to effectively communicate.

These obviously healthy guys have benefited enormously from improved access to health care across the state—they’re in tip-top shape. Policies that enable Texans to reap the rewards of our economic boom while building a social safety net have given these fine folks more disposable income, which they’ve spent on accessories and decorations, which in turn feeds the economy. The shirtlessness conveys a carefree and easy-going feeling. And yet at the heart of it, they embrace nominally conservative concepts and language so central to the state’s DNA, like “freedom,” and “marriage.”

The result: A happy, friendly, fun-loving state. Very well done, Willis campaign. Let’s flip it over:

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Oh. Wait—I don’t understand. Willis didn’t do it? What do Homosexual-Americans have to do with this?

Democratic nominee for comptroller at a campaign event with Tejano legend Little Joe, October 24, 2014.
Christopher Hooks
Democratic nominee for comptroller at a campaign event with Tejano legend Little Joe, October 24, 2014.

Update: Last week, the Observer sat down with Democrat Mike Collier to talk about his candidacy for state comptroller. Collier, a veteran accountant, is in a race with state Sen. Glenn Hegar (R-Katy) for control of an office that plays a crucial role in the state’s budgeting process. The Observer asked both candidates to sit for a Q&A, but Hegar’s campaign didn’t reply to our request.

In the interview, Collier spoke about the poor performance of the state’s current comptroller, Susan Combs, and the importance of producing reliable revenue forecasts for the Legislature to use while creating budgets. “We’re a very large, very prosperous state,” Collier said. “But for some reason we can’t seem to find the money for roads, schools, and water.”

Collier has proposed producing quarterly revenue forecasts, which would make it easier for the comptroller’s office and Legislature to adjust to changing economic conditions. More accurate revenue forecasting, he says, would provide the Legislature with more money to invest in the state without raising taxes.

He also spoke about the need to correct dysfunction in the state’s property tax system, where owners of commercial and industrial properties pay artificially low property taxes, shifting the state’s tax burden to homeowners.

“It’s patently unfair to homeowners and owners of small businesses,” Collier said. But attempts to fix the system have always met a quick death in the lege, where monied interests hold sway. If he’s elected, Collier says he’ll “be fiercely independent and call to people’s attention where these bills stand.” In the past, Hegar has helped kill tax reform bills.

Collier also said that the comptroller should act more assertively as a watchdog over public funds. “We have a pattern in Texas where the leaders at the very top can dole out this money and act like they’re above the law,” he said. “A big part of that problem lands at the feet of the comptroller.”

The comptroller’s office, he said, should be shorn of ownership of the Major Events Trust Fund and other marginal responsibilities so that the comptroller can maintain his or her narrow focus on sound financial policy.

Previous story: The comptroller’s debate last night was a pretty rare thing in the crazy tilt-a-whirl of this election cycle—it was substantive, contained serious but civil disagreements between two generally well-informed and earnest candidates, and illuminated real policy distinctions that are both important and little-discussed in the state’s public sphere. Compared to the rest of the debates and candidate forums we’ve seen over the last year, it might as well have been a unicorn convention.

In part, that’s because almost no one in the state is paying attention to the comptroller’s race. That’s unfortunate, because it is a hugely influential and important position. The comptroller provides the Legislature with an estimate of how much money the state can spend over each two-year cycle. If the comptroller bungles the estimate, legislators will either spend too much money or, as has happened under the tenure of incumbent Susan Combs, will make sweeping cuts to state government they didn’t have to make. (Combs is partially responsible for the gargantuan cuts in 2011 to the state’s public education system, which proved to be essentially unnecessary.)

And that lack of attention is unfortunate for Democrat Mike Collier, because it’s hard to see how many people could watch his debate with state Sen. Glenn Hegar (R-Katy) and come away with the impression that Hegar deserves the state’s purse strings more than he. Collier, a former partner at the global accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, is an ideal technocrat: He’s passionate about good government and good accounting, and he lacks political ambition. Hegar was a so-so senator who doesn’t have much of a plan for the office.

The moderator of last night’s debate asked how Collier and Hegar would avoid the kind of foul-ups Combs has had. How would they come up with better revenue estimates? Collier said he’d provide quarterly revenue forecasts, which would help the office more nimbly adjust to economic conditions and give observers a better sense of whether he was doing a good job. He had decades of experience with revenue forecasts, he said.

Combs’ failure was so massive and so inexplicable, he said, that he “personally believes it’s a possibility” that she screwed up the revenue forecasts on purpose to squeeze state government. The office needed an apolitical hand on the till. “We need somebody in the office who knows what they’re doing,” he said, which in Texas is a virtually revolutionary statement. He’d be a “watchdog” that would use the office’s authority to beat back corruption in different crannies of state government.

How would Hegar make sure he wasn’t botching revenue forecasts? Well, he would travel around the state and talk to businessmen, to “get the pulse” of the state, in order to better understand Texas’ “economic vibe.” He’d use “21st century communication technologies,” including YouTube, to spread the word about the comptroller’s office. Well, OK.

Collier called for closing “loopholes” relating to the tax assessment of large industrial and commercial properties, which shifts the state’s tax burden to homeowners. Hegar said a broader fix was necessary, but couldn’t say much about what that fix would be.

Glenn Hegar
State Sen. Glenn Hegar

Collier brought up Hegar’s proposal to abolish property taxes, and replace them with sales taxes—an idea that few policy analysts take seriously but has nonetheless won favor with state GOPers, including lt. governor nominee Dan Patrick. Collier characterized Hegar’s proposal as “tripling sales taxes.” Hegar angrily denied wanting to do so, but then told his TV audience that “consumption taxes are the best method of collection,” seeming to indicate he’d be fine with a shift toward them.

Collier, like his Democratic ticket-mates Sam Houston, running for attorney general, and Leticia Van de Putte, nominee for lt. governor, have won every major newspaper endorsement in the state. Collier projects competence and practicality—Hegar projects ideology and ambition. In a more civically engaged state, Collier would at least have a shot at comptroller. But this is Texas, and the odds are stacked significantly against him.

Still, Collier has been putting in a performance he can be proud of as one of the punchiest members of the Democrats’ good-government ticket. “It’s almost comical that a career politician would lecture a 30-year businessman about job creation,” Collier said of Hegar in his closing statement. Wouldn’t it be nice to wake up one day next year and know the man keeping the state’s books knew what he was doing? “We’re all tired of politics and we’re all tired of politicians,” he added.

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