Thu March 5, 2015 2:02 pm By R.G. Ratcliffe

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick is reaping a systemic failure in the Senate that he helped sow. And he made up for it this week with a public relations campaign of daily topical news conferences.

The Texas Senate once roared like a lion in the early days of every legislative session, priding itself on swift passage of numerous bills. Senate reporters often spent the end of the session lining the back walls of the House to watch bills from the Senate get debated. Angry senators would storm the House, demanding to know what had come of their bills. But this year, the Senate passed its first bill – an emergency transporation item – just this week.

The Texas Constitution forbids lawmakers from passing bills in the first 60 calendar days of a legislative session unless designated as an emergency by the governor. That provision can be set aside, however, if 25 senators vote to do so. Up through the regular session of 2003, voting to suspend the Constitution bill by bill was routine on uncontroversial bills. And with about 1,400 bills passed each session, few are controversial.

In the days of senatorial harmony, the state Constitution was routinely set aside to pass bills in the early days of the session. That came to the grinding halt in the special sessions of 2003 when the two-thirds rule – sometimes called the rose garden rule – was set aside to pass a congressional redistricting plan favorable to Republicans. The rule blocked debate on a bill unless affirmed by two-thirds of the senators present in the chamber. Democratic senators broke the quorum by fleeing to New Mexico, but ultimately returned to Austin and surrendered to the inevitable.

Suddenly, doing away with the two-thirds rule became a Republican cause, promoted quite often by Dan Patrick.

With the Democrats feeling far less congenial, the Constitution was not suspended in the 2005 session for quick movement of then-Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst’s agenda. Apparently, it was done once in the 2007 session, but never again since. If there was any hope of restoring the Senate’s suspension vote harmony, it disappeared when Patrick pushed the Senate to junk the two-thirds rule in favor of a three-fifths rule that would allow Republicans to run over Democrats on controversial or partisan legislation.  Without the support of the Senate Democrats, there is no way to get the 25 votes needed to suspend the Constitution for speedy passage of non-controversial Senate bills early in the session.

The Senate before 2003 had been a legislative workhorse. Afterward, in most sessions, senators started leaving town at the end of the day on Wednesday. During the 2013 session, the full Senate did even meet on a Thursday until March 21. This year, senators gathered on their first Thursday to canvass the vote for governor and lieutenant governor, and they haven’t met on Thursday since.    

The Senate on Wednesday passed the first bill of the session, a proposed constitutional amendment to shift from $2.5 billion to $5 billion a year of motor vehicle sales taxes to road construction and maintenance. The measure was able to move forward because transportation funding had been designated as an emergency by Governor Greg Abbott. That didn’t stop Patrick for taking credit, though: “I may be new, but I’m quick.”

In the 2003 session, the Senate passed its first emergency bill on February 11, the fifteenth day it was in session. The state Constitution was suspended for the first time to take up legislation on February 26, 2003. By this kind of reckoning, the Senate already is a month behind the kind of pace that was set under former lieutenant governors Bill Hobby, Bob Bullock and Rick Perry.

So unable to show the Senate moving quickly in this session, Patrick has resorted to an old feed-the-beast scheme of presidential campaigns: Control the daily free media as much as possible with topical news conferences to drive the agenda in the public eye.

Monday –  Patrick and the Senate’s 20 Republicans held a news conference to complain about federal healthcare regulations and to demand federal wavers to give Texas greater flexibility in managing Medicaid.

Tuesday – Patrick and a bipartisan group of senators gathered the media for a newser on a $4.6 billion property tax relief plan that would increase the homestead exemption and make it float with the average price of houses in Texas. They called it relief because it might not actually cut a homeowner’s existing tax bill, just keep it from increasing as much.

Wednesday – Patrick along with Senators Jane Nelson, a Republican, and Juan Hinojosa, a Democrat, unveiled proposed constitutional amendments to sidestep the state constitutional spending cap. Money spent on debt reduction and property tax relief would not count against the spending cap, thus freeing up other money for state expenditures.

Patrick and Nelson portrayed SJR3 and SJR4 as ways to gain access to about $4 billion that cannot be spent without a vote to bust the constitutional spending cap. “We could pass legislation that is contingent on this passing,” Patrick said. But neither amendment would take effect until September 1, 2017, meaning they would have not affect on the budget that currently is being written. This sleight of hand maneuver might help the 85th Legislature, but not the 84th.

This whole game of spin the media daily won’t really be necessary by the end of next week when the Legislature passes the 60th Day. However, the fact is Dan Patrick has not realized his dreams of a fast-moving Senate swiftly sending bills on their way to the House. This is the bitter root grown from the seeds of discord sewed by Dewhurst and Patrick over the two-thirds rule. As the Bible says in Galatians 6:7 “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”

 

Thu March 5, 2015 10:34 am By R.G. Ratcliffe

The Senate Nominations Committee today gave its blessing to the confirmation of controversial University of Texas System Regents Sara Martinez Tucker, Steven Hicks and David Beck.

 

Wed March 4, 2015 9:54 pm By Paul Burka

Among Dan Patrick’s less desirable qualities is his monumental ego. A case in point. Patrick wrote a letter to President Obama in an attempt to get the federal government to agree to certain things Patrick wanted them to do for Texas. What’s wrong with that? Well, the person who is authorized to communicate with the federal government is not the Lieutenant Governor, it’s the governor. If anyone were going to write the feds seeking concessions, it should have been Greg Abbott, whom, you may have heard, is the actual governor of Texas.

Read More
Wed March 4, 2015 6:25 pm By Erica Grieder

This morning Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, joined by Senators Jane Nelson, Chuy Hinojosa, and several others, unveiled a proposal that can only be described as craven.

Aman Batheja, at the Texas Tribune, summarizes the idea: the Senate’s budget writers are suggesting that money spent on paying down state debt and lowering property taxes not be counted towards the spending cap. This is an alternative to the current options: spend less money, or voting to bust the cap. Patrick’s explanation is telling:

“We have more money on hand than we believe any Legislature has ever had at one moment in time dealing with budget issues,” Patrick said. “There is no support for exceeding the spending cap but that also means that when we leave, we will have approximately $4.5 to $5 billion in the state’s checking account.”

Well…yes. That is, as it happens, how the spending cap is designed to work. It’s also why voters amended the Texas Constitution to include a spending cap in the first place. As Batheja notes, the spending cap has often been redundant, historically: the Texas Constitution’s pre-existing pay-as-you-go provision means that the Lege doesn’t necessarily have enough money to write a budget that would bump up against the cap, which is set by the Legislative Budget Board based on projections about population growth, incomes, and inflation. Sometimes, however, the state coffers are flush; in those cases, the purpose of the spending cap is to keep the government from going on a spending spree.

The fact that we have such a provision in the Texas constitution is a measure of the state’s longstanding commitment to fiscal discipline. Do you remember back in the olden days, which ended about six weeks ago, when Rick Perry spent years as governor saying, ad nauseam, “Don’t spend all the money”? That’s the concept behind the spending cap. It was literally Perry’s first principle of governing. It’s not a hard concept. Some Republicans still remember it, like House Speaker Joe Straus, who issued an icy statement about the rambunctious Senate: “For 36 years our state spending cap has helped enforce fiscal discipline, and we should be very cautious about any attempt to weaken it.”

Democrats, who generally would like Texas to spend more money on things like schools, may disagree; they have often called on Republicans to override the spending cap when the state has enough money to do so. And overriding the spending cap isn’t unduly arduous, in theory: it just requires a simple majority vote in both chambers, the same as passing the budget itself does. To put the previous point differently: the fact that we have a spending cap reflects the state’s historic commitment to fiscal discipline, and the fact that Republicans have resisted overriding it suggests that the commitment remains. In 2013, for example, Patrick was among the senators standing for fiscal discipline, despite being sympathetic to priorities such as school funding: “I cannot vote to break the Constitutional spending cap. If we do that then we will be on the same road to financial disaster that our federal government is on.”

Just two years ago, in fact, Republicans were so committed to maintaining fiscal discipline that a number of them went to the mattresses to fight a “spending spree” that wasn’t even real. So the proposal unveiled this morning is quite a change of tune. Let’s break this down:

Read More
Wed March 4, 2015 3:57 pm By R.G. Ratcliffe

As Texan George W. Bush’s eight years as president wound down in 2008, Bush told Politico that there was one thing he was looking forward to in a return to private life:

“Emailing to my buddies. I can remember as governor I stayed in touch with all kinds of people around the country, firing off emails at all times of the day to stay in touch with my pals One of the things I will have ended my public service time with is a group of friends. And I want to stay in touch with them and there’s no better way to communicate with them than through email.”

Bush, the email addicted Texas governor, had gone cold turkey on taking office as president, knowing his email accounts would be public record and thus fodder for reporters and opposition researchers to pore over looking for material that could be used to embarrass him.

Apparently, rather than follow the path of this Texas governor, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chose to follow the path of another Texas governor, Rick Perry, and engage in removing emails from public scrutiny. While each used different techniques, Clinton and Perry both found ways to make public disclosure of their emails difficult. When it comes to the public’s right to know what their government officials are doing, Clinton and Perry seem to be birds of a feather.

 

Read More