Google+ Back to mobile

Hooks on Politics

Leticia Van De Putte
Courtesy of leticiaformayor.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

84th Texas legislative session
Cesar Garza via Flickr

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

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

So, how are things going, anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The letter continues:

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

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

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

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

Ah, the magic of representative government.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joe-Straus-house-floor
House Speaker Joe Straus

There would be blood, promised state Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford). Lawmakers were fed up. They weren’t gonna take it anymore. But in the end, as if the Texas House was a kindly-treated Carrie, there was none. Just five of 150 reps voted against the $209.8 billion budget—a relatively pitiful showing.

From noon on Tuesday to just short of 6 a.m. on Wednesday, the House worked through hundreds of amendments to its budget, House Bill 1. Although delirium—and perhaps, some more potent intoxicants—brought out the worst in a number of legislators, House leadership was able to avoid most of the pressing fights that might have come before it. Democrats and Republicans voluntarily withdrew many of their most divisive bills over abortion and immigration. Even Stickland played along.

The night’s headlining bout, state Rep. Abel Herrero’s (D-Robstown) attempt to preemptively ban vouchers for the second year in a row, likewise was canceled, though word had it that his amendment came down primarily to save Republicans a tough vote—vouchers being, perhaps, dead in the House anyway.

What to make of it? In previous years—especially in tough budget years, like 2011—the House budgeting process was a carnival. People scrapped over money, and both Democrats and far right Republicans fought the middle, even if just for show. This year, though, the fire is gone from the belly of the tea party to some degree, and there’s a sense among most of the House that the enemy is the Senate.

That didn’t stop a few unusual amendments from getting passed, and a few legislators from saying things they shouldn’t have. At the top of the list in both categories might be state Rep. Stuart Spitzer (R-Kaufman), who authored an amendment to take $1.5 million per year from the state’s HIV/STD prevention program and use it to juice abstinence education.

In the course of the debate, Spitzer—who said the state’s goal should be to ensure no one has sex before marriage—told the crowd he’d only ever had sex with one woman, his wife, when he got married at age 29. He recommended it. For this, he was subject to a mildly ungentlemanly remark from state Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston). But Spitzer’s story shows how state government is getting more tolerant—not too long ago, admitting to your colleagues you’d only had sex with one woman would be a serious political liability at the Lege.

Less funny is that Spitzer’s amendment passed easily, though it’s an open question whether his amendment is going to stay in the budget. He did not give any sign of being especially well-liked by those in control last night. When he offered a measure to move money from arts programs to courthouse preservation efforts, another Republican successfully amended his amendment so that the money would instead come from a community college in his own district, forcing him to voluntarily withdraw his bid.

Things got sloppier through the night. When state Rep. Scott Sanford (R-McKinney) offered a bill to put a dent in the Texas Lottery Commission, citing the need to protect the poor, state Rep. Borris Miles (D-Houston), passionate but slurring his words a bit, told Sanford at 2:42 a.m. he was “full of shit.” Hours later, reps called points of order on six consecutive bills, as if just for the fun of it (one killed an ill-conceived attempt to prohibit TxDOT from funding rail projects.)

An attempt by Rep. Tony Dale (R-Cedar Park) to hack more than $50 million out of the Health & Human Services budget to pay for sweet new airplanes for DPS border operations was defeated, though by one of the closer votes of the night. At 3:53 a.m., an angry Rep. Debbie Riddle (R-Tomball) slammed state Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth) over his bid to kill the Racing Commission with a sentence that started with “If you had any respect for horses…”

Democrats spent much of the evening trying to add data reporting to the budget. Most of them were defeated. One amendment by state Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-Clint) aimed to expose gender pay discrepancies in state agencies. It was torched, too. Earlier in the night, state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D- San Antonio) offered a series of symbolic amendments, trumpeted by the Texas Democratic Party, to increase school funding and attempt to force the attorney general to settle the state’s school funding lawsuit. These, too, were easily defeated.

A final note—there’s a word for the idea behind debating a budget for 16 hours straight, until the birds on the Capitol lawn are greeting the morning. It’s “stupid.” The 140-day calendar the Lege works with—and stuff is only really happening for 90 days of that or so—imposes a lot of constraints. Even well-informed people can’t really know what’s going on half the time in the Capitol’s dark recesses, thanks to the quickening pace as we head toward June.

But the House easily could have broken this budget debate into a couple of days, so that reps were more sober and less tired and could focus on what’s on the page in front of them. But, you know, maybe that’s the idea. It’s like having toddlers—get them tuckered out.

Ted Cruz, Manchurian Candidate

How the junior senator from Texas helped precipitate a milestone in the growth of the Chinese state.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz speaks to a rapturous crowd on the second day of an Americans For Prosperity summit in Dallas.
Christopher Hooks
Ted Cruz receives rapturous applause at a conference put on by Americans For Prosperity in Dallas, August 2014.

Yes, Ted Cruz hails from a foreign land, as late-night comedians and the nation’s hackiest political commentators have been happy to inform you. But the headline is about something else. Something that you wouldn’t normally read about in the Observer: The games great powers play in Asia. In March, we’ve seen some important milestones in the gradual expansion of Chinese state power—events that our state’s junior senator had a small but significant role in bringing about.

If that sounds like a stretch, let’s go back a bit. Over the last few weeks, we’ve witnessed the growth of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, an international financial institution first proposed by the Chinese government in late 2013 that really got going in the second half of last year. The AIIB is intended to be China’s answer to other financial institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank, banks in which the United States, Europe and Japan have outsized influence.

The AIIB’s stated goal is to raise and distribute capital for the development of major infrastructure projects in Asia, for countries that can’t afford them on their own. Whatever you think of financial institutions like the IMF and ADB—they have plenty of detractors—the creation of a rival institution through which China can build influence in Asia is clearly suboptimal from the perspective of American power.

The primary reason China wanted the AIIB in the first place is that it has been getting cut out of the decision-making process at the international banks—it was growing wary of the ADB, in which its rival Japan is the biggest stakeholder. And despite putting more and more money into the World Bank and IMF, it didn’t have voting power in the organizations commensurate with its new financial power. This seriously irked China, and there’s good reason to believe that talk of the AIIB might have begun as nothing more than a threat intended to force change.

The thing is, almost everybody was willing to give China more votes. There was a plan worked out years ago to increase the voting power that emerging economies get in the banks—one which barely altered America’s power in the organizations. The IMF leadership endorsed it heartily. It was backed by all of its members, including the U.S. The Obama administration happily backed the deal, but it fell to Congress to confirm the new plan.

Congress being Congress, it went for years without doing so. But then, last spring, it finally looked as if it might act. Senate leadership attached the badly overdue IMF reforms to an aid package to the faltering Ukrainian government, which would be getting assistance through the bank. Cruz played a critical role in killing it. Here’s what the Observer wrote in April about how things went down:

Cruz released an open letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announcing his intention “to object to any floor consideration of Ukraine aid legislation that contains these IMF provisions.” It’s been reported that Cruz asked all Senate Republicans to co-sign the letter. In the end, only five did (stalwart Cruz ally Mike Lee and the idiosyncratic Rand Paul among them.) The letter is full of blank lines for signatures that were not provided. Nevertheless, the bill started to have problems.

House Republicans began announcing their intent to oppose the Senate language. A growing number of GOP Senators began to express disquiet. That left longtime Cruz nemesis John McCain sputtering with fury. Those who were hoping to slow or strip the bill were “on a fool’s errand,” just like the government shutdown. They had left him “embarrassed” by his party.

But the opposition to the bill grew. The aid bill slipped into the next week—then the next. What had begun as an uncontroversial provision had become a poison pill. Marco Rubio joined the crusade, though he didn’t go as far as Cruz. (He’d previously characterized the reforms as “Russian-backed.”) It became apparent that many were willing to kill the Ukraine aid bill rather than accept the IMF reforms. Early last week, Reid conceded defeat—he’d strip the bill.

It was the closest Congress had come to ratifying the IMF reform package, and its failure left congressional Republicans more unified in opposition to the reform measures. The fiasco seemed, to many observers, evidence that Congress would never let China and other emerging economies have more voting power.

And so the Chinese search for an alternative accelerated. A few months later, it unveiled grand plans for its new bank, and observers told the Financial Times the proposal was directly tied to the death of IMF reform:

“China feels it can’t get anything done in the World Bank or the IMF so it wants to set up its own World Bank that it can control itself,” said one person directly involved in discussions to establish the AIIB.

Now, Cruz’s quixotic killing of IMF reform wasn’t the only time Uncle Sam shot itself in the foot over the AIIB: As Dan Drezner writes in the Washington Post, the Obama administration’s hopeless bungling of the issue now means U.S. allies are becoming founding members of the bank against American wishes, while the U.S. is out in the cold—where the smart thing to do might just have been to join the bank, too.

But Congress—and Cruz specifically—bears a significant amount of blame. Plenty of Republicans were happy to vote for IMF reform until it was made a litmus-test issue. Some Republicans now acknowledge stalling on the IMF package was a mistake: Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, no hippie squish, told a policy forum in Brussels recently that the policy fumble was “an unfortunate event and it might be bigger than we understand today.”

Would the Chinese have launched the bank anyway if IMF reforms had been passed? Maybe so—but that’s a question historians might debate someday as they chart the rise of Chinese influence in Asia.

It’s a crummy way to manage a superpower whose influence is in relative, though not absolute, decline. It’s one of the few things Cruz has done in Congress that has had real consequences. Now, of course, he’s asking for control of American foreign policy.

In all things, Cruz and his friends don’t want the branches of American power to bend. They use words like “muscular” to define their approach to the world: They see compromise as a sin. Branches that don’t bend break, of course. But there’s a danger, too, that our friends will just go find another tree.

How Senate Republicans Saved the Franchise Tax

Freshman hazing is a tradition in the Legislature, but Troy Fraser took it a little further on Wednesday.
Don-Huffines
State Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas)

In the end, the result of the debate over the package of tax cut bills considered by the Senate on Wednesday was pre-ordained—they’d pass. The three bills, beloved by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, would cut property taxes and franchise taxes to the tune of $4.6 billion. Even if they face an uncertain future in the House, they’d sail through this Senate, right?

But in the latest installment of this Senate’s continuing difficulties—Senate Republicans’ magical ability to make life harder for themselves than it needs to bethe tax debate on Wednesday produced one of the most revealing dust-ups of the session so far between the tea party caucus and its foes.

Right-wing Senate freshmen, led by state Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas), threatened to derail the whole thing by demanding that the Senate pass steeper tax cuts. And in response, state Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay) gave Huffines what amounted to a public dressing-down that threatens comity in the already uneasy Senate GOP caucus.

Huffines offered an amendment to Senate Bill 7, a franchise tax cut bill shepherded by Nelson and state Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), that would phase out the franchise tax entirely over several years. Doing so would blow a giant hole in the state budget. Senate Republicans often talk about killing the franchise tax, and Huffines called their bluff.

Huffines’ amendment put Senate Republicans in the dangerous position of having to vote for the franchise tax—in other words, to keep it alive—or take a politically popular vote that would ruin the state’s finances in a couple of years. In effect, it poked senior Senate Republicans and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in the eye. His colleagues pleaded with him to drop it, but he steadfastly refused.

It took quite a while for SB 7 to come to the floor, the first hint of trouble. Senators spent hours on small, uncontroversial bills—like killing a tax on “combative sports events”—or doing nothing at all. Patrick, for his part, stayed away from the freshmen for most of the day. It should have been a proud day for him, but he seemed agitated and unhappy.

SB 7 came to the floor more than three hours after the Senate first came to order. Huffines’ amendment was first in line. But before he could introduce his amendment, Patrick directed the chamber’s attention to Fraser, who had a modest change to Huffines’ proposal. Fraser’s amendment would strike the lines about abolishing the franchise tax, and instead direct the comptroller’s office to study the issue. Fraser, in effect, put his boot down Huffines’ throat, with Patrick’s permission.

Fraser said he hated the franchise tax too, and this study would help them do away with it. State Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) rose to have a little fun. “This guts the Huffines amendment, right?” he asked Fraser. Huffines, ready to speak, lowered his mic and looked away in frustration. “No, this helps Huffines’ amendment,” Fraser said. “So you would say this perfects his amendment?” asked West.

Eventually Huffines was recognized to speak, and he started to talk about his proposal. But Fraser immediately jumped on him, with the tone of a father straightening out a young child. Right now, he said, they could only talk about Fraser’s amendment, not Huffines’ amendment. And didn’t Huffines know about Fraser’s hearing problems? Fraser would be much obliged, he said, if Huffines would turn to face him when he spoke.

Huffines turned and spoke slowly. “Senator,” he said. “I move that we table your amendment.”

The motion to table Fraser’s amendment failed 7 to 24, and his amendment passed 20 to 11. In the end, only three Republicans, all freshmen, stood with Huffines and against the Senate leadership: Konni Burton, Bob Hall and Van Taylor. Seven Democrats, hoping to cause trouble, joined them.

With Huffines defeated, the bill passed easily. So why is this important? It says something significant about how this Senate works—or doesn’t.

The freshmen, who are pretty far to the right, have not been getting along with the Senate’s senior figures for quite some time. Behind the scenes, the two groups have been sharply, bitingly critical of each other. They’ve clashed publicly over issues like Abbott’s nominations to the University of Texas System Board of Regents, but this is the first time the division has played out so prominently on the floor. And the humiliation of a freshman senator by a senior one will be remembered.

The dust-up makes it even less likely that the freshmen will play along with their senior counterparts. The only reason Fraser was able to head off Huffines so quickly was because Huffines played by the rules and let his colleagues know his intentions—in the future, he and his friends may be more reluctant to do so.

The disappearance of the two-thirds rule as a factor in Senate negotiations makes these kinds of intra-party rifts more dangerous. Last session, the Republicans could put some blame on Democrats for watering down or killing legislation. Now the Dems are no longer a factor. But to get legislation out of the Senate on a party-line vote, Patrick needs the Republicans who sided with Huffines.

If Patrick were still a senator himself, the freshman would be his ideological allies. But now that he’s lieutenant governor, he needs them to fall in line. Here’s his limp spin on his efforts to preserve the franchise tax:

Is this a terminal condition? Hardly. But it’s something to watch. Deteriorating relations within their caucus could push Senate Republicans in strange directions.

It’s also notable that the House leadership announced a plan to make fixes to the state’s dismal school finance system Wednesday morning, just an hour before the Senate went into session. Is the plan any good? That’s a subject for debate. But as the House and Senate begin to butt heads more seriously over the budget in the last two months of the session, the House is assiduously playing the role of the grown-up in the room. And the Senate is only too happy to help them with that.

Ted Cruz at a wildly popular event in the convention's exhibition hall.
Timothy Faust
Ted Cruz experiences a moment of self-satisfaction at the 2014 Texas Republican convention.

Now he belongs to the ages. Today Ted Cruz, one of the foremost representatives of the state’s persecuted Texan-Canadian community and the junior Senator from the North Texas tea parties, ascended from this state’s low mortal plane and affixed himself to the celestial realm of presidential politics, where he’s always thought he truly belonged. The announcement wasn’t a surprise, but when it happened (earlier than his competitors) and where it happened (at the evangelical Liberty University) was.

What to make of it? Is this the beginning of a long, slow grassroots groundswell of the kind that Cruz harnessed to trample David Dewhurst in 2012? Could 2015 be the year of national #Cruzmentum?

No and no.

Some conservatives—and the Democratic Party fundraising apparatus—would have you believe otherwise, but a bet against Cruz winning the Republican nomination for president would be among the safest possible uses of your money. Cruz isn’t in the same category as the Ben Carsons and Carly Fiorinas of the world—people who are running only to up their future speaking fees and maybe land a Fox News gig—but he has a roughly similar chance of winning the GOP nomination, much less the presidency.

There are political reasons and policy reasons this is the case, as well as personal ones—are Americans really going to cheer for an Ivy League snob with an affinity for paisley bathrobes and Jesse Helms who hung a giant oil painting of himself arguing in front of the Supreme Court in his office?

But there’s a simpler reason to doubt Cruz: In almost every presidential election since FDR’s last re-election, Republicans have nominated the more moderate, business-minded candidate over an ideologue, with 1964 being the only real exception. (There’s 1980, too, but that’s something of a special case.) The conservatives who love Cruz are right: The donor class—the people who care a lot about estate taxes and not all that much about the gays—run the national party, more or less. Cruz is a Barry Goldwater in an era that’s not looking for one.

In his address this morning at Liberty, he posited the existence of what we might start calling the “Silent Plurality”—evangelical and other voters who would come out to support the party if it had real leadership. He has, certainly, an almost fanatic appeal to a part of the Republican base, and especially so in Texas.

But winning a Republican primary in this state provides a very particular kind of political experience, one that is not easily translatable elsewhere. For years, he’s been deploying the same one-liners at rallies—his speeches to friendly crowds, who’ve surely heard his zingers many times before, sometimes have the feel of a stand-up comedian’s routine.

But when he puts himself in front of crowds that won’t give him the easy laughs, he often looks lost. He’s more comfortable provoking people than finding commonalities with them. And despite his lauded oratorical skills, he’s never really proved adept at using the politician’s most basic tool: Tailoring his speech to different audiences as the need arises. His base loves him for that, of course.

Cruz’s most significant contribution to the race—apart from the inherent entertainment value—might be his ability to scramble the GOP primary here in Texas, thanks in part to a set of weird new rules adopted for the contest.

Next year, Texas’ primary will be on March 1, much earlier on the calendar than previous years. After the early states, like Iowa and New Hampshire, it will have been the biggest state to vote, and it’ll be rich with delegates. Because the GOP field could easily still be crowded at that early date, the state might play an important role in determining the winner.

Why does that matter for Cruz? The event next year is going to be a bit more complicated than it used to be. The state’s many delegates will be allocated three ways: There will be a pool of delegates that represent the statewide vote, a pool of delegates that represent the vote of each congressional district, and a pool of delegates whose allegiance will be determined at a later date.

If one candidate takes a majority of the vote in Texas next year, or a majority of the vote in one of the state’s congressional districts, they’ll take all of those delegates. But if no one takes a clear majority statewide or in certain congressional districts, the candidates who win more than 20 percent of the vote split those delegates proportionally. Then, a quarter of the pot will be awarded to one candidate at the state Republican convention later in the summer.

This is Cruz country, and if he’s still in the race by the Texas primary—you can bet he’ll stay in till at least then—he’s likely to take a big share of the vote, if not win it outright. If he does, it’ll have the effect of hurting other candidates who might do well here—candidates with Texas connections such as Rick Perry, Jeb Bush and Rand Paul.

With Cruz in the race, some might struggle to pass the 20 percent barrier. And if Cruz can lay a credible claim to having “won” the messy Texas primary, you can bet his supporters will be pushing hard to award those floating delegates to Cruz at a convention if there’s still a contest to be had.

Still, don’t worry too much about President Cruz. But don’t get too eager if you think a failed presidential campaign will knock him out of the spotlight. He’s up for reelection in 2018. Democrats used to fantasize about running a credible challenger against him—particularly, they talked about convincing one of the Castro brothers—but after the Democrats’ 2014 electoral disaster, that possibility seems remote. So despite the hundreds of thousands of words that will be written today, in most of earth’s languages, about Mr. Cruz’s chances, expect everything to stay the same, more or less.