Thu January 29, 2015 4:26 pm By Erica Grieder

Today was Texas Muslims Capitol Day, meaning that several hundred Muslims (and friends) traveled from around the state to spend a day “to learn about the democratic political process.” Among the things we all learned is that Texas, such a big state, also includes a number of people who would take this as an occasion for a protest. The speeches, songs, and prayers on the south steps of the Capitol were, at many points, drowned out by the shouts of anti-Muslim protesters—a smaller group, but louder. One exception that I saw came when the Muslims sang the “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Since at least some of the protesters were working on the assumption that being Muslim and being American are incompatible, the fact that these Muslims were singing the national anthem created some confusion, and the protesters quieted for a few minutes, until one of them shouted: “There’s no ‘twilight’ in sharia!” 

While I was watching, at least, stopping sharia law seemed to be the top priority for the protesters, although an oddly pre-emptive one. Despite recent reports that Muslims in Dallas have established a sharia tribunal for people who wish to address their disputes that way, there are no legislators who have expressed an interest in attempting to establish anything along such lines in Texas, and no Muslim Texans, as far as I know, who are lobbying for such a change. If such a bill was filed, moreover, it wouldn’t pass.Setting that aside, if such a bill somehow passed, any measure creating government support for an explicitly religious legal system would be immediately be struck down under the Texas Constitution, which separates church and state. If all else fails, it would be struck down under the US Constitution, which also separates church and state, meaning that the United States effectively forestalled sharia law a long time ago. I’ve also heard some comments today, on Twitter, suggesting that under Islamic law, any version of sharia passed by the Texas Lege wouldn’t count as such. I’m not sure what that means; since Texas doesn’t have sharia law I have no occasion to know what it entails and no one’s going to force me to study it. Other than this unblinking yet unnecessary stand against sharia, it’s not clear what the protesters were so agitated about and a number of them said things that were bigoted, illogical, and/or unkind. The First Amendment protects their right to do so, even though they obviously don’t speak for all Texans.

Neither does Molly White, the Republican representative from Belton, but she does represent her district, and she didn’t make them look good today. In a Facebook post, she explained that although she wouldn’t be in Austin, she had left an Israeli flag on display and “instructions to staff to ask representatives from the Muslim community to renounce Islamic terrorist groups and publicly announce allegiance to America and our laws.” Later, presumably having been notified that she had put her staff in a humiliating position, not to mention any Muslim visitors she may have had, she offered a “clarifying statement” which, as the Tribune’s Reeve Hamilton noted, didn’t really clarify much at all. 

When someone says something that sounds awful I think it’s worthwhile to pause before responding, to consider the comment in context and think about any mitigating factors. In this case, White is a true freshman—new to electoral politics, not just the Lege—and there’s bound to be a learning curve. But even a private citizen should know how weird and hostile her Facebook post was. I can only think of two reasons a legislator would ask Muslims to pledge allegiance as a prerequisite for a courtesy call: she thinks they’re intrinsically suspicious, or that there’s enough reflexive anti-Muslim sentiment in right-wing circles that she didn’t give it much thought at all. The latter possibility, that White is a symptom of widespread casual bigotry rather than a cause, can’t be dismissed outright, considering that she swiftly won some cheap praise from the cheap-thrills conservatives

But she also earned plenty of well-founded criticism that will linger over her and her district, and a rebuke from House Speaker Joe Straus, which was clearly in reference to White but would be good for everyone to remember in the new days to come: “The Texas Capitol belongs to all the people of this state, and legislators have a responsibility to treat all visitors just as we expect to be treated – with dignity and respect. Anything else reflects poorly on the entire body and distracts from the very important work in front of us.” 

Tue January 27, 2015 6:19 pm By Erica Grieder

I wrote a preview of the 84th Legislature for the February issue, and among my predictions was that Democrats should be stoical about the push to legalize open carry of handguns, because it’s a) not that big of a deal and b) such a bill would pass easily: Republicans have enough votes and Greg Abbott had already said he would sign it. 

But by the end of the first day of session, my prediction was looking dubious. A group of advocates from Open Carry Tarrant County, advocating for their cause around the Capitol, confronted Rep. Poncho Nevarez in his office. In theory, they were asking for his support, but in practice, as is clear from a video of the encounter posted by the group’s leader, Kory Watkins, they were harassing him in personal terms because he told them, clearly and calmly, that he wasn’t planning to vote yes on the bill. As a result of their efforts, Watkins et al spurred the Lege to immediate action, which is more than many advocates can say: the next day the House approved rules letting members install panic buttons, so they could call for help in the event of such confrontations. The advocates had, somewhat poetically, shot themselves in the foot; it was probably still possible for the Lege to pass open carry, given how large the Republican majorities are, but there would be more resistance. 

As of today, the effort might well be dead. At a Texas Tribune event this morning, Dan Patrick told Evan Smith that he doesn’t think there are enough votes to pass open carry in the Lege at this point, and, beyond that, that he wasn’t concerned about it: “Second Amendment rights are very important, but open carry does not reach to the level of prioritizing at this point.” Instead, he said, he—and by extension, the Senate—would prioritize issues like education reform and tax relief.

This was surprising, considering that Patrick has done nothing to ruffle conservatives during his first week on the job (although not surprising if you consider that Patrick has always been less predictably conservative than his rhetoric and persona would suggest.) It was also the most sobering one-two punch a conservative has dealt his own side since Giovanni Capriglione told the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party that he would support Joe Straus for speaker because Scott Turner couldn’t muster enough votes to win and, incidentally, wasn’t qualified for the job.

As in the Capriglione case, Patrick’s analysis was forceful because it was essentially pragmatic. After the Trib event he offered some more explanation on Facebook and in regard to the math, he said that there hadn’t been enough votes to pass open carry last session, and that at this point don’t appear to be enough votes in the House or the Senate this time around. That may be correct. I thought there were easily enough votes in both chambers before session started, if you add up the votes from Republicans who support open carry and the Republicans who aren’t going to vote against a base-pleasing gun bill when it gets to the floor. But those numbers have surely shrunk as a result of the way open carry advocates have pursued this; their behavior has been genuinely off-putting and, accordingly, provides political cover for Republicans who weren’t thrilled with the ideal in the first place. 

Regardless, as lieutenant governor, Patrick has a figurative vote determining which issues come before the Senate. He effectively just voted no on open carry, and his explanation was totally fair. Patrick has always been clear and emphatic about his priorities. Open carry hasn’t been one of them, although he’s said that he supports it. And in a 140-day biennial session, no one can should fault him for prioritizing his stated priorities. If conservatives don’t like it, they should build a time machine and go vote for Jerry Patterson. 

What conservatives should not do is attack Patrick, as many are doing in the comments section of his aforementioned Facebook post. This is bound to backfire. There’s no evidence, even now, that Patrick doesn’t support the Second Amendment—his point was about time management, not gun laws. And if conservatives want to argue that Patrick should prioritize what is, after all, a relatively minor change in Texas’s gun laws over his plans for bigger reforms in areas such as education, taxes, and border securtiy, they’re going to come across looking like OCTC guys (or like the Tea Partiers who spent two months trying to punish Capriglione for his similar comments): bizarrely entitled bullies with no sense of proportion. And they’re not going to win the fight, any more than they won the speaker’s race. 

(AP Photo / Eric Gay)

Mon January 26, 2015 7:11 am By Erica Grieder

Good morning, Texans. I hope you all had a nice weekend and didn’t, unlike me, spend several hours brooding over a political possibility which, once you think about it, can’t easily be dismissed: Dan Patrick (left, with senators Kel Seliger and Kirk Watson) may very well be elected governor in 2018. Under certain conditions the scenario may be almost inevitable. Consider:

1. Although it’s been widely presumed that Julian Castro wants to run for governor in 2018, in view of the 2014 bloodbath it’s become much more difficult to argue that he, or any other Democrat, has a realistic chance of winning. (In fact, given that Castro is both prudent and young, we should probably re-evaluate the premise that he wants to run—and it’s not as if there are many Democrats clamoring to be the party’s standard-bearer at the moment.)

2. It’s also been widely presumed that George P. Bush would like to run for governor in 2018, or at least that he’s not planning on slumming it as land commissioner forever. However, again in view of the 2014 elections, there’s no reason to think he would beat a Tea Party favorite in one of Texas’s highly specialized Republican primaries.

3. Most importantly, I don’t think we can blithely go about our business under the impression that Greg Abbott will naturally be the Republican gubernatorial nominee next time around. Assuming he runs again, there’s always been reason to think that Patrick might challenge him in a primary. Abbott may be anticipating such a possibility—as Burka observed in September, he was still raising campaign funds two months before the general election, despite leading Wendy Davis by a double digit margin—and of course Patrick has not been shy about challenging incumbents thus far. And less than a week after they were inaugurated, the distance between Abbott and Patrick is starting to show. Abbott has cast himself as a governor who means to build on the work done in Texas over the past ten years, saying that as great as Texas is, we can do more; Patrick has cast himself as a change agent whose election represents “A New Day”. To that end, Patrick has already presided over several changes in the Texas Senate; meanwhile, the self-appointed conservative enforcers at outfits like EmpowerTexans have already taken Abbott to task over his appointments to UT’s Board of Regents. For Abbott, a primary challenge would probably be a greater challenge than the general election, because the primary is decided by a small subset of hard-right voters, and in that context, as Poncho Nevárez observed at the LBJ Future Forum last week, Abbott can expect to be held accountable for any acts of centrism (real or perceived, one might add).

When it comes to electoral politics, a lot can change in four years. But that doesn’t mean a lot will. Happy Monday!

(AP Photo/Austin American-Statesman - statesman.com, Jay Janner)

Sun January 25, 2015 5:06 pm By Erica Grieder

Dan Patrick’s committee assignments, announced Friday afternoon, strike me as fairly sound. His self-imposed parameter, that a Republican lieutenant governor should be reluctant to appoint Democrats to chair committees, limited his options: the Senate has 20 Republicans, but 8 of them are freshman, who by definition lack experience in the Senate (although half of them—Brandon Creighton, Lois Kolkhorst, Charles Perry, and Van Taylor—have served in the House). Another potential pitfall was the fact that during his years in the Senate, Patrick routinely broke with his fellow Republicans on various matters, and several of the returning senators are known to have strained relations with their new president.

In the end, Patrick’s picks reflect both constraints. The rules adopted last week winnowed the number of committees from 18 to 14, meaning that Patrick had fewer committee assignments to make altogether. Although he appointed the same number of Republican chairs (12) as Dewhurst did in 2013, he appointed only two Democrats (John Whitmire and Eddie Lucio) compared to six. Patrick also passed over one experienced Republican, Craig Estes, who was, perhaps relatedly, the sole Republican not to vote for the new rules.

The decision to limit the number of Democrats meant that Patrick forewent senators like Chuy Hinojosa, who is highly experienced and hardly a commie. The snub of Estes meant that he had to find his 12th Republican in one of the aforementioned freshmen, Charles Perry. And Democrats, of course, were not pleased to find themselves at a further disadvantage in terms of committee assignments as well as chairmanships.

With that said, Patrick could have done worse. As the new senator from Lubbock, Perry has every reason to do his best for the Committee on Agriculture, Water, and Rural Affairs. The decision to appoint Donna Campbell to chair the committee on Veteran Affairs and Military Installations was a surprise—many people had expected to see Campbell as chair of Public Education—but probably shouldn’t have been. As a doctor from the greater San Antonio area, Campbell has expertise in some of that committee’s likely concerns, and Public Education probably needed someone with more experience in the Lege, which is true of its new chair, Larry Taylor. Re-upping Kel Seliger as chair of HIgher Education, despite the high-profile dustup between Seliger and Patrick on the dark money bill in 2013, suggests that Patrick isn’t completely vindictive. Meanwhile, for any Democrats reading: I get why you’re frustrated, but you’re bound to be frustrated if your party loses the general election by twenty points.

Overall, my biggest criticism of Patrick’s committee assignments would be that these picks, like the Senate’s decision to move from a two-thirds rule to a three-fifths rule, were clearly the result of a campaign promise which was more opportunistic (an effort to draw a distinction between himself and the incumbent) than substantive.

With that said, the new approach to the committee chairmanships, like the switch to the three-fifths rule, will probably have less impact than conservatives are hoping and Democrats are fearing. “The average score on conservative indexes during the last session by the new batch of chairman was a 70%.*,” crowed AgendaWise, “During the 2013 session chairmen appointed by former Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst averaged a 61% on the same indexes.” That methodology is somewhat obscure—which conservative indexes?–but considering that 67% of the 2013 chairmen were Republican, compared to 86% today, the fact that the chairmen as a group are 9% more conservative isn’t exactly the stuff of legend. And both sides have cause to be optimistic. Now that Governor Patrick has fulfilled two campaign promises he can, I hope, focus on governing. 

Thu January 22, 2015 6:10 pm By Erica Grieder

Like Burka, I’ve been a fan of the Texas Senate’s two thirds rule, and I was sorry to see it go yesterday. I’m not in total despair, however, because: 1) I don’t think the change itself, from 2/3rds to 3/5ths, is going to be that consequential, 2) it’s not even clear who stands to lose from the change. 

Consider: Both Republicans and Democrats have described the change as major. But both Republicans and Democrats have made the seemingly contradictory argument that moving from 2/3rds to 3/5ths won’t make much difference. Kevin Eltife, the Republican from Tyler, who authored the resolution in question, was among several simultaneously maintaining both positions. “We will still have a super-majority requirement in the Texas Senate,” he said, while explaining the changes he was proposing. Later, during the floor debate, he told a number of Democratic senators that in his opinion, the 3/5ths requirement was still sufficient to encourage discussion and compromise, and to serve as a hedge against genuinely bad bills. However, Eltife also made a case for the change, arguing that the 2/3rds threshold was simply too high, and had made the Lege more prone to postponing contentious discussions until the special sessions (where the two-thirds rule typically wouldn’t apply anyway). And when directly questioned, during the floor debate, Eltife described the change as significant. “Is it fair to say that this would be a big change?” asked Rodney Ellis. “Yes,” said Eltife. John Whitmire, a Democrat and the dean of the Senate, was similarly ambivalent. During the floor debate, he said that the 2/3rds debate had proven useful during his 32 years in the Senate, and he exhorted his colleagues not to abandon it. At the same time, he warned that we shouldn’t overinterpret the resolution’s eventual passage. “It’s probably not as bad as I’m standing here making it out to be,” he said. “But it’s also not nearly as good as some of my other colleagues think changing it is gonna be.” 

That was, I thought, a fair summary. As Eltife said, under the new rules the Senate will still have ways to enforce deliberation. The 3/5ths rule is one. The decision to whittle the number of Senate committees from 18 to 14 may well turn out to be another: fewer committees available to consider legislation means more bills are going to end up on the cutting room floor. 

The implications of the change are similarly unclear, but I would disagree with the reaction, from both the left and the right, that yesterday’s vote was a coup for conservatives and a blow to Democrats. The reasoning is clear enough. Under the 2/3rds rule, 11 senators could block a bill from coming to the floor. Under the 3/5ths rule, the magic number would be 13.  The Senate has 11 Democrats and 20 Republicans. As a result of the change, in other words, Democrats will no longer be able to block bills on their own.

Many observers argued that this was clearly the Republicans’ goal. On social media, left-leaning groups adopted the hashtag “#lockout”—and a number of conservatives crowed about their victory. Several Democratic senators commented on the partisan makeup too, and Jose Rodriguez, from El Paso, argued that in addition to marginalizing Democrats, the change would effectively marginalize African-American and Hispanic Texans, roughly 60% of whom are represented by the Senate’s 11 Democrats. Eltife rejected that line of argument. “We have to be honest about it,” he said. “A lot of bills that hit the floor of the Senate, we don’t vote on party lines.” More to the point, he continued, the two-thirds rule has historically been about protecting the minority opposition to the issue at hand (such as rural legislators), not the minority party. Leticia Van de Putte, from San Antonio, agreed with him: the most brutal and emotional fights she had seen in the Senate, she said, hadn’t been about partisan issues but about water.  

There have, of course, been some pretty ferocious partisan fights in the Texas Senate in recent memory; the 2011 battle over voter ID comes to mind. But it is true that not all the Senate’s fights are partisan, or strictly partisan. When it came time to vote, the Senate adopted the 3/5ths rule by a 20-10 vote, which was a vaguely ironic outcome because 2/3rds of the senators voted in favor of change and because one Democrat (Eddie Lucio) voted for it and one Republican (Craig Estes) declined to vote. And despite the change, there are reasons to expect some bipartisanship from the Texas Senate. There are 20 Republicans and 11 Democrats, but depending on the issue, we may see the Senate look like a chamber of 21 centrists against 10 tea Partiers. Beyond that, if the new rules do make it easier for Republican senators to pass bills, it doesn’t mean that changing the rules was good for Texas Republicans in general. There is a reason that many Republicans have historically supported the 2/3rds rule, and that they didn’t switch to a simple-majority system yesterday; the reason, bluntly, is that Republicans sometimes file some really dumb bills. 

Ultimately, then, I don’t think the move to a 3/5ths rule was that big of a deal. For the same reason, I was sad to see the two-thirds rule go. There was no pressing reason for the change. There was only a petty, political reason. Dan Patrick, the new lieutenant governor, has been a critic of the two-thirds rule since his first term in the Senate, in 2007, and during last year’s primary for the Republican nomination he championed this as a crucial difference between himself and the incumbent, David Dewhurst. And over the course of a long and contentious campaign Patrick inevitably committed himself to pursuing this change, even though the difference was never important, merely existent and therefore available for campaign purposes. The rules changes adopted yesterday were the direct result of the narcissism of small differences I wrote about a few weeks ago. In the grand scheme, they may not matter. But maybe this is a question worth asking: in a 140-day session that affects 27 million Texans, how many days should our state leaders allocate to red meat and ephemera?