Welcome to the 87th Legislative Session. Since the last session came to a close in June 2019, Texas has been hit by an unrestrained pandemic and a crippling economic crisis. Now, under unprecedented circumstances, lawmakers are faced with a number of urgent challenges. The Texas Observer is following along every step of the way.
Go here for last week’s dispatch from the state Capitol.
What We’re Following:
The scandal-plagued Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton surfaced this week to defend himself before the Senate Finance Committee, which is proposing to cut his office’s budget. It didn’t go well.
Paxton has asked the Legislature to fund his office to the tune of $1.26 billion over the next two years. Instead, the Senate Finance Committee is proposing to slash nearly $90 million–and about 150 staff positions—from Paxton’s budget request. It’s a stark rebuke to the former state senator, especially since the committee agreed to give other statewide officeholders, like the governor and comptroller, exactly what they asked for.
During the hearing, the attorney general took a barrage of critical questions from his former colleagues on a broad range of matters. Senator Royce West, D-Dallas, pressed him on the legitimacy of a lawsuit—which was reportedly written by Trump allies and filed by Paxtonn—asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn other states’ election results. Paxton fumbled through his explanations, ultimately claiming that “we felt like the voters of Texas were disenfranchised.” Paxton’s top aides pushed back against filing the suit and his solicitor general Kyle Hawkins, who has since resigned, refused to put his name on it. The Supreme Court immediately dismissed the case. A Paxton aide told the committee that the political stunt only cost the state $12,000 in printing costs. When West pressed Paxton on how much time he and his top staff spent on the case, the attorney general said they didn’t keep track.
Senator John Whitmire, D-Houston, asked Paxton whether any state funds were used to travel to Washington, where he spoke at the “Save America” rally that preceded the Capitol riots. Paxton didn’t directly answer the question, but did say the trip also included official state business at the White House. After speaking at the rally, Paxton told the committee that he and his wife “went and had lunch, and people did what they did”—an oblique reference to the Trump supporters who went on to storm the Capitol after the rally.
Paxton wasn’t spared by the committee’s Republican legislators either. Senator Joan Huffman, R-Houston, prodded Paxton about his request to spend $43 million on outside attorneys for the multistate antitrust lawsuit against Google that his office is leading. She pointed out that his office has about 700 lawyers on staff.
”You have talented lawyers who are capable of handling these big cases, correct?” Huffman asked.
“If Google is going to have the very best lawyers that know antitrust, we wanted to be able to compete on the same playing field,” Paxton said, claiming that the case is so complicated that only an elite class of private-sector antitrust attorneys are experienced enough to handle the case.
The AG also drew the ire of Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, for what she saw as his attempts to make end-runs around the Legislature: State budget officials have reported that Paxton violated his budget authority last year by using $40 million in funds, including money earmarked for specific purposes, to pay for staff pay raises—and did so without getting approval from the Legislature or the governor.
“You know that I am not pleased,” Nelson told Paxton. “We have an appropriations process for a reason. And if every agency did what yours did, General Paxton, we wouldn’t have a budget. We wouldn’t even need a budget.”
Senator Nelson also admonished Paxton after learning that the state’s share of a national opioid lawsuit would be divvied up by a council appointed in part by the AG and governor, and that the Legislature would have no role in the process. “Anything that cuts this legislature out of the process, I don’t like,” she said.
The committee’s grilling of Paxton came as the top state lawyer has been plagued for months by a drawn-out corruption scandal. Last fall, several of his top deputies alerted federal authorities that they believed Paxton had used his office to protect his friend and donor Nate Paul’s imperiled real-estate empire, allegedly violating bribery and corruption laws. After Paxton fired those top deputies, several of them filed a whistleblower lawsuit against him. Those fired aides allege that Paul helped remodel the attorney general’s house and gave a job to his alleged “mistress” in return for Paxton’s interventions. The FBI is also actively investigating his involvement with Paul, who himself has been the target of a federal investigation.
Democrats have called for the Legislature to investigate Paxton’s alleged abuses of power. While some Republicans initially offered tepid responses—Abbott said the allegations “raised serious concerns”—GOP lawmakers in Texas have since remained quiet about Paxton’s most recent litany of alleged wrongdoings—the Associated Press asked the Legislature’s more than 100 Republican members if they were confident in Paxton’s ability to do his job. Only two responded.
But the proposed cuts and the adversarial hearing are a sign that Paxton’s goodwill among fellow Republicans may be running low.
What We’re Reading:
In a radio interview this week, Patrick said there’s nowhere near enough support in the conservative Texas Senate to expand the state’s restrictive gaming laws. This comes as the late Sheldon Adelson’s casino empire makes a heavy-handed push to establish facilities in the state, and a coalition of professional sports teams in Texas press to legalize sports betting. Patrick claims the competing pro-gaming factions are undermining their own efforts: “There’s so much infighting and competition among all the people in that arena, that’s why it never goes anywhere. And so it’s not even an issue that’s going to see the light of day this session.” / Dallas Morning News
Multiple federal courts have found Texas’ cash bail practices discriminatory against poor people. But the governor has said his bail “reform” proposal—which he made an emergency item in his State of the State address last week—will instead focus on keeping “dangerous criminals” in jail before they’re convicted. Bail reform advocates bemoan Abbott’s new urgency and revamped proposal will undermine true reform that focuses on fixing discriminatory money bail practices and instead exacerbate racial disparities. / Texas Tribune
State environmental groups, and Democrats legislators, are pushing to enact a tax on natural gas that is flared or vented by fossil fuel companies during the oil-drilling process. ONG companies will burn off or vent excess natural gas because it’s cheaper than capturing it and bringing the gas to market—but the wasteful and rampant practice also emits massive amounts of greenhouse gases. Advocates say that a flaring tax force companies to invest in capturing the gas instead. The Texas oil and gas industry, of course, is steadfastly opposed. / Austin-American Statesman
Briscoe Cain, a notorious hard-right state representative, was tapped by Speaker Dade Phelan to chair the House Elections Committee. Cain, who is an attorney, traveled to Pennsylvania after the presidential election to help the Trump campaign as it sought to find evidence of voter fraud. The chairmanship will be a powerful post this session as GOP lawmakers, including Governor Abbott, want to make “election integrity” legislation a top priority. / Texas Tribune
Texas is one of just a handful of states with school financing formulas that are driven by “average daily attendance,” a metric that some researchers say is deeply inequitable. State Rep. Gina Hinojosa, an Austin Democrat, is leading a push this session to instead base the funding formula on overall enrollment. / Dallas Morning News
All Hat, No Cattle
The Texas Legislature is known for its outlandish members, ludicrous antics, and right-wing flare-ups. Here’s your weekly dose.
When news broke Tuesday night that Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban had decided to no longer include the national anthem before home games, a predictable firestorm ensued.
Unsurprisingly, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick—the state’s preeminent conservative culture warrior—leapt into the fray. On Wednesday morning, Patrick tweeted at Cuban that his decision was a “slap in the face to every American & an embarrassment to Texas. Sell the franchise & some Texas Patriots will buy it.” He went even further on a conservative talk radio show, saying that Cuban’s decision “was even more divisive” than the Trump supporters’ deadly, riotous storming of the Capitol to stop the certification of the presidential election.
.@mcuban Your decision to cancel our National Anthem at @dallasmavs games is a slap in the face to every American & an embarrassment to Texas. Sell the franchise & some Texas Patriots will buy it. We ARE the land of free & the home of the brave. https://t.co/4xfY5loqQQ
— Dan Patrick (@DanPatrick) February 10, 2021
Other conservative lawmakers in Texas quickly followed his lead. State Senator Drew Springer tweeted that “It’s time that Cuban’s special Texas tax breaks comes [sic] to an end.”
The NBA quickly issued a statement that all teams would be required to play the national anthem, and the Mavericks confirmed that it would comply. In a statement, Cuban said the team respects “the passion people have for the anthem and our country. But we also loudly hear the voices of those who feel that the anthem does not represent them.”
But that didn’t stop Patrick from elevating the matter into a full-blown state emergency. By the end of the day, the Lieutenant Governor issued a statement announcing the “Star Spangled Banner Protection Act,” which he said would, through some undefined enforcement mechanism, “ensure that the national anthem is played at all events which receive public funding.” Patrick said his bill, SB 4, a number typically reserved for marquee legislation each session, would be made a top legislative priority.
One notable entity that receives public funding and does not play the national anthem at public events? The Texas Senate.