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EmpowerTexans Has No Business Running Texas

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On Friday afternoon, I paid a quick visit to my actual office for the first time since Monday, and noticed something on my desk, which is half-covered with documents that I haven’t decided what to do with, including this one. It was a copy of a letter that EmpowerTexans sent to subscribers in Denton County on April 13th, which an unamused (and conspiracy-minded) recipient had forwarded to Texas Monthly’s general mailbag, which you can see below the jump.

I don’t remember when exactly I received it, or whether I gave it much thought at the time. The letter was clearly a sinister mishmash of lies, illogic, and typos, but the same could be said of most EmpowerTexans essays. And between JudicialWatch’s fabrications, AgendaWise’s feverish imaginings, the Lieutenant Governor’s Grassroots Advisory Board unhinged analysis of public education, Molly White’s response to her critics, the open-carry advocates who flipped out at Dan Patrick for telling them a truth they didn’t want to hear, the right-wing carnie who set her internet goons on me when I disputed her assertion that my April feature on this year’s open carry debate was “sexist”, etc, etc, etc, it’s not in itself the most lurid, risible, or wrong-headed thing I’ve read all session. But I do remember why I held on to this letter. And on Friday, as a result of intervening developments, I was glad I did; in light of subsequent events I’m afraid this is a fairly disturbing document.

Here’s the letter:

Since I tweeted about the letter on Friday, a number of House Republicans have confirmed that this broadside wasn’t specific to Ron Simmons, who was elected to represent HD65 in 2012. These letters were apparently sent to about 80 House districts, represented by Republicans from all points along the ideological spectrum, but with one common denominator; I bet you can guess what it is.

But first things first. I held on to the letter because it happens to be an attack on Ron Simmons. That struck me as odd, because of two things I know about Simmons. First, he is one of the few legislators of either party, in either chamber, who appears to be universally well-regarded as a man of principle, intelligence, and good character. I was impressed by him in 2014, when he took part in a panel that I moderated during the Texas Tribune Festival about the future of road funding, and although I haven’t been paying close attention to him this session, I’ve had a number of sources tell me about Simmons doing something respectable and constructive, despite being well out of view of any television cameras. I’ve literally never heard anyone say anything negative about the guy, other than in this letter. Even as a sophomore, he’s become one of the relatively few legislators whose involvement alone confers credibility on issues. And here’s the second thing about Simmons: He happens to be a conservative Republican with impeccable Tea Party credentials. EmpowerTexans, in fact, supported him when he first ran for office.

But even so, apparently, Simmons deserves to be attacked for disobedience, according to the thugs who run EmpowerTexans and Texans for Fiscal Responsibility. There’s only one vote that matters to Michael Quinn Sullivan, and Simmons cast his for Straus. That struck me as sufficiently unhinged that I kept hold of the letter. And on Friday, having re-discovered it, I was struck by a number of other reasonably contemptible dimensions:

1) The letter is dated April 13th, 2014, which I assume means it was sent on April 13th, 2015. Either way, the House Ways & Means committee didn’t even take up Dennis Bonnen’s tax bills, HB 31 and HB 32, until the following day. Although the provisions of the House’s tax-cut package were already known, in other words, they hadn’t even been heard in committee, much less taken up on the floor. So it would have been pre-emptive for any House Republican to have had announced his or her support for the Senate plan by April 13th.

It would also have been bizarre: from a fiscally conservative perspective, the House plan was better for a number of reasons, in addition to being bigger ($4.9 billion, compared to the Senate’s $4.6 billion). That’s why, on April 25, 90 of the 98 Republicans signed a letter arguing for the merits of the House’s plan over the Senate’s. And on April 29th, the sales tax bill passed 146-0. Not a single Republican voted against it. A number of the Republicans who voted against Straus for speaker are actually listed among the co-authors of the bill. All things considered, it’s absurd, and ethically indefensible, that EmpowerTexans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility pre-emptively and dishonestly attacked most of them for failing to have done otherwise.

2) The letter asserts that the Texas Senate, in passing the plan, was voting for a joint production: “the historic $4.6 billion tax cut agendas of Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.” Unless Abbott has been lying to the public—repeatedly, continuously, and for no apparent reason—this is a lie on Sullivan’s part, on behalf of Patrick’s plan, if not necessarily at Patrick’s request. The latter scenario is obviously more likely. In both his budget and his inaugural state of the state, Abbott has called for property tax relief, on the condition that any relief spending—and property tax “relief” provided by the state is necessarily state spending—be accompanied by meaningful structural reforms. As of April 13th, the Senate had failed to produce any reforms whatsoever and there was no reason to think that it would, since Jane Nelson, the Senate Finance chief, showed no real interest in bills to that effect that had been filed by Paul Bettencourt and Robert Nichols. The only one she authorized was a comparatively innocuous measure from Brandon Creighton, which picked up a meaningful amendment on the floor, offered by the previously thwarted Bettencourt.

Abbott, meanwhile, still has not publicly announced his support for what Sullivan referred to, in April, as “the tax relief measures championed by Abbott and Patrick”. If MQS wants to provide any evidence to support his assertion, I’ll update this post to reflect it. Otherwise, I think we can all proceed on the assumption that Sullivan was simply invoking Abbott’s name and reputation for his own political purposes, despite the fact that the governor didn’t come up with the Senate plan, hasn’t endorsed it, and presumably wouldn’t condone pre-emptive personal attacks on most of the Republicans serving in the House.

3) In addition to smearing Abbott, Sullivan is smearing millions of Texans, by implying that the Senate plan was inspired by our stated concerns about property taxes, and designed with our interests in mind. As a Texas homeowner, nope. Sorry, but nope nope nope. I understand the issue and share the frustration of the Texas homeowners who responded to the UT/TT poll cited, and I’m pretty sure I qualify as one of the Texans being invoked as a political prop here. In March of this year, my mortgage payment included about $270 to be held in escrow for property taxes. By April, the figure had jumped to about $440. Still, anyone who understands economics, or knows much about recent Texas history, can understand that since the growth of property taxes is a structural problem, not a natural disaster, homeowners need structural reform rather than band-aids and Pedialyte.

And Sullivan has no right to speak for me, much less lie about me, so just in case I’ve been unclear: No, Texas Senate. Thank you, but I do not want SB1/SJR1. I agree that Texas homeowners could use property tax reform, but this does not qualify. If anything, it jeopardizes the prospects for real reform. It is a gimmick which would provide “immediate relief” only for Republicans in statewide office who can’t wait to click “send” on a press release. If I had the slightest reason to think that Abbott would support such an appalling idea I would have written in Rick Perry for governor. Thank you again for thinking of my interests, Texas Senate; that’s really sweet of you, especially after everything I’ve said about your plan this year. But if I somehow end up with a tax rebate as a result of this, I will donate the check to Don Huffines for Congress.

4) Sullivan, like all bullies, turns out to be a coward. He hasn’t formally committed to supporting the Senate’s plan over the House’s, even after attacking Republicans like Simmons for failing to do so: on April 25th, he wrote a post asking readers to weigh in via a poll, and although the post implies support for the Senate plan, it included an unmistakeable sign that he also saw the letter from the House Republican caucus. Noting that the House was soon to vote on the sales tax measure, he offered a proviso designed to protect his scorecard: “The Fiscal Responsibility Index will favorably consider the legislation.” And when the poll failed to produce the correct result, he switched the results, citing a technical error.

5) I’d like to think that I’m beating a dead horse in pointing out that EmpowerTexans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility is a pox on Texas, and a fraud. But based on what I heard from a number of sources on Thursday and Friday, it looks as if Sullivan is going to be the real winner here, because Abbott is apparently prepared to support a “compromise” that focuses on franchise tax relief and some smaller version of Patrick’s “property tax relief”—less than Patrick originally hoped for, but more than Abbott was able to secure for his own top priority for the session, expanding access to the government’s plot to indoctrinate children into godless socialism.

Some sources insist that the compromise will be less noxious than the Senate’s original plan, if only because it would create a slightly smaller recurring gap in the state’s biennial budget, and perhaps because it will require that Patrick give up his spending-cap sabotage gimmick. As one Senate Republican staffer put it to me, the deal is “not very damaging.” Geez, is that what we’re aspiring for these days? Maybe it works in DC, but I’ve always thought Texas deserves better. And we had better, as recently as 2013. David Dewhurst once threatened to arrest me, and I didn’t appreciate that, but he never tried to wield the power of his office against basic mathematical and analytical truths, such as “money spent by the state is state spending.” Rick Perry wasn’t above the occasional pander, but he wasn’t afraid to stand up to bullies, even if they were EmpowerTexans.

Personally, then, I agree with the House Republican who told me that the pending deal was “bullshit,” but not with his seeming implication that I should blame the House Republicans for it. Having been paying attention to them this session, I think that would be unfair. Some of the House members are scared of primaries, but most of them demonstrably aren’t; all but 19 voted for Straus as Speaker, even though they had received clear orders from Sullivan.

If Abbott’s about to cave, on the other hand? Maybe he has his reasons. But being scared of a primary really shouldn’t be one of them. As the EmpowerTexans letter makes clear, Patrick needs Abbott to legitimate his plans; today, at least, it’s not the other way around. And I hope the governor realizes that too, because if you give a mouse a cookie, he’ll be back in 2017 with a much larger list of demands.

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