Thu December 18, 2014 1:06 pm By Erica Grieder

One of the enduring idiosyncracies of Texas politics is that behavior that would easily raise concerns over corruption in many states is legal, normal, and even encouraged, as when legislators argue that their concurrent business interests give them expertise rather than conflicts of interests. 

That’s worth keeping in mind when considering the roiling drama over at the Health and Human Services Commission. Last week Jack Stick, HHSC’s chief counsel, resigned after its head, Kyle Janek, canceled a $110m contract that Stick had awarded to 21CT, an Austin-based data analytics firm whose lobbyists include one of his former coworkers, without considering any competing bids. As the Houston Chronicle’s Brian Rosenthal explains, Stick got around the competitive bidding requirement by using the Cooperative Contract program, which is meant to minimize red tape for state agencies making minor purchases: 

State officials said Stick chose the process because he became so smitten with 21CT’s ability to identify patterns within combined data sets that he thought formal bidding would waste time.

That explanation appears far-fetched, however, according to experts who said most anti-fraud software is not radically different.

“Everybody has their own slightly special way of doing it, but it’s all basically the same bucket of chicken,” said Alan White, inspector general at the Wisconsin Department of Health Services and a spokesman for the National Association for Medicaid Program Integrity. “There are only so many pieces in the bucket, and how you get them is how you get them.”

21CT’s contract, which was for fighting Medicaid fraud, is apparently legal, although its size–$110 million dollars—is irregular. The Chronicle crunched the numbers, and found that over the past five years contracts awarded under the Cooperative Contracting program have had an average value of $3,493. Also legal but irregular was a 21CT contract, with the Department of Family Protective Services, which was worth $452,000. That one was also awarded without competitive bidding, after Stick recommended the company to DFPS officials. And it was cancelled on Wednesday, after the Texas Tribune started asking about it.  

It’s not hard to see why these contracts would be controversial, except that such contracts rarely are, in Texas. After a video camera company called WatchGuard was awarded a $10m contract with the Department of Public Safety in 2006, several of its competitors cried foul, arguing that the bid had been carefully written to exclude all companies other than WatchGuard, which happened to tout two incumbent legislators among its initial investors. That case elicited some criticism, but comparatively little backlash and no notable consequences; one of the legislators in question, Ken Paxton, is about to be sworn in as attorney general. In a different vein, awards from the Texas Enterprise Funds might be considered pseudo-contracts, insofar as the companies that receive them are meant to yield measurable economic returns, and there’s no direct competition for those awards, only an intermittently enforced application process

The Austin American-Statesman’s J. David McSwane’s account, though, points to a possible explanation. The owner of one of 21CT’s rivals says that when his company analyzed three years’ worth of data on Texas’s Medicaid spending, they found suggestions of rampant fraud, perhaps amounting to as much as a quarter of the roughly $28 billion the state spends on Medicaid each year. 21CT, not having had to compete for the contract, never produced that kind of analysis. And it has yet to produce any notable results: In October, an audit found that investigators in HHSC’s office of the inspector general were recovering so little money that had been fraudulently paid that they weren’t necessarily paying for themselves, to say nothing of any data analytics firms. Thus far, in other words, the controversy points to a Texas-specific understanding of corruption. Cronyism is probably fine. Inefficiency is intolerable. 

Tue December 16, 2014 7:03 pm By Erica Grieder

As a feminist, someone who believes that men and women should be treated equally, I had no problem with the selection of Wendy Davis as Texas Monthly’s Bum Steer of the Year. As a journalist, I would have had qualms picking anyone else. The award recognizes the Texan who most spectacularly face-planted in public during the previous year.  As our then-editor Jake Silverstein noted in 2012, it’s not necessarily a title we relish bestowing. For every Dick Cheney, who was recognized for shooting his friend in the face, there’s a Rick Perry, who shot himself in the foot. Feelings aside, though, and politics aside, Davis was abundantly qualified for this year’s title: to ignore her would have been to ignore how genuinely bad her gubernatorial campaign turned out to be. It would have suggested, on our part, the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Inevitably, some readers disagree with our choice of Bum Steer, and we encourage them to do so. Nonetheless, I’d like to take a moment to address a critique written by Andrea Grimes of RHRealityCheck. In a post published yesterday, she calls the cover an “act of pure, derisive mockery,” part of “a long bipartisan tradition of deeply misogynistic mainstream portrayals of women who work in politics.” As evidence, Grimes cites the cover itself, which depicts Davis grimacing after having stepped in a cow patty, wearing the pink sneakers that carried her through her famous filibuster in June 2013; this is worse than a caricature, she argues, and harsher than previous Bum Steers covers, such as the one featuring a “remarkably smooth-skinned” Perry. She also offers a variety of unsubstantiated theories about our motives, but let’s set those aside—a glance at Texas Monthly’s masthead would offset any concerns about deep-seated sexism among our ranks. 

Some of Grimes’ points are debatable; as my colleague Andrea Valdez observes, the caricature of Perry makes him look kind of like a monkey. But what I wanted to highlight is Grimes’ argument that criticizing Davis is tantamount to “punching down” or picking on the underdog, because I’ve heard other partisans make similar arguments in the wake of this year’s general elections:

This year, Texas saw its most promising, most energizing Democratic candidate in years: a woman who gave thousands of Texans permission to finally talk about supporting abortion in public, who filibustered not only for reproductive rights but for education funding, who took a Harvard law degree while raising two daughters. And the most prominent periodical in the entire state, the magazine that purports to be a thought leader in the political conversation month after month, shoved her into a shit pile for it.

Is it any wonder Texas Democrats have trouble gaining ground in mainstream political conversations? When they are roundly mocked for making any attempt to try?

Grimes is right to say that Davis was the most promising Democratic candidate in years. She was promising as a state senator, having shown that she could win in a purple district and having earned favorable recognition for her work in the Legislature; in 2013, for example, Davis was named to Texas Monthly’s biennial Best List. Her filibuster, in 2013, left Democrats more energized than they had been in years, as we discussed at the time. It also made her famous and helped her raise a lot of money, which meant she had unusual momentum going into the campaign. No one thought it would be easy for a Democrat to win statewide in 2014. But Davis’s candidacy, at least for us, raised the question of whether the party could be considered competitive again.

In other words, Davis wasn’t named the Bum Steer because she lost. That would be ridiculous; there’s no dishonor in trying. Rather—and this is not remotely unclear, if you read the articleDavis was named Bum Steer because of how she lost. She lost badly: “In the end, she lost by more percentage points than Tony Sanchez did in 2002.” She lost fairly: “Infighting! Staff shake-ups! Tension with the press! Missteps over her own biography!” And she lost consequentially: “It’s not that the Democrats underperformed. It’s that the party that hasn’t won a statewide race since 1994 actually dug itself a deeper hole!”

I would put the case even more strongly than that. At the beginning of the campaign I thought that she had a chance to exceed expectations, like Ted Cruz in 2012. But Davis’s campaign wasn’t just ineffectual. It was deeply shallow. The most clear-cut example of that came in September, when Davis finally started talking about raising the minimum wage—a worthy issue, one that voters in five other states would approve in November, and one that Davis set aside a couple of days later in favor of promoting her memoir. In 2014, she even seemed to set aside the issue she had gone to bat for in 2013; on the anniversary of the filibuster she commemorated it as a fight against “insiders” rather than a stand for reproductive rights. Davis’s campaign was, also, unduly invidious. It was wrong of conservatives to deride her as “Abortion Barbie,” of course, as too many did—but it was also wrong of Davis’s actual campaign to insinuate that Greg Abbott is a rape apologist, which they did, repeatedly. 

Ultimately, Davis’s campaign was far less serious than her supporters would have hoped when she declared. The results were dispositive: she underperformed Bill White, the 2010 nominee, by a considerable margin; Democratic turnout dropped; and despite unrelenting arguments about a supposed war on women, Abbott won 55 percent of the women’s vote. (And yes, as some Democrats noted, he lost among Hispanic and African-American voters, but the “war on women” is theoretically directed against all women, and it’s not a good day for Democrats when they’re taking comfort in the fact that a Republican won only 45 percent of the Hispanic vote overall.) Beyond all this, Davis also cast an undeserved shadow on downballot Democrats like Leticia Van de Putte and Mike Collier, who campaigned with purpose and passion, and who would surely be named to Texas Monthly’s Champion Steers list, if we had one.

Some Democrats might take a more generous view of Davis’s campaign itself. Others, no doubt, would rather celebrate Davis’s strengths than dwell on her missteps. It’s taking things a step further, though, to assert that such missteps never occurred; to posit that Davis’s yawing defeat was largely due to the voter ID law; to posit that Davis, as a matter of social justice, should effectively be graded on a curve; or to angrily insist that any criticism of Davis, from any source, reflects misogyny or elitism. Such claims ignore reality. Such assertions of endemic victimhood helped land Davis on the Bum Steers cover, and deservedly so.

Thu December 11, 2014 1:41 pm By Erica Grieder

This morning we released the cover of our January issue, which features our Bum Steer of the YearThe issue itself, which will be hitting newsstands and mailboxes in the next few days, includes a number of additional dishonorees—a real herd of clowns. 

Have a look and let us know what you think of our pick. Already, several readers have written in with the rebuttal that we should have used the cover to call out the millions of Texans who didn’t vote. 

Wed December 10, 2014 4:53 pm By Paul Burka

Greg Abbott is off to a great start as governor. He is doing exactly what a governor ought to do. He has started by addressing the major needs of the state, roads foremost among them, but also education. He has assembled a formidable staff of experienced hands who know their way around the Capitol. I’m optimistic that he will not be awash in ideology.

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Mon December 8, 2014 2:29 pm By Erica Grieder

In 2003, Texas passed a law deregulating tuition at the state’s public colleges and universities. By 2004, average tuition rates had started to climb; by 2013, they had roughly doubled. That being the case, the subject has been controversial for years, with Republicans and Democrats, including some who voted for the bill in the first place. And tuition deregulation is worth considering in light of the recent debate over in-state tuition for unauthorized immigrants. If next year’s Lege repeals a law that passed with nearly unanimous support in 2001, the spiraling costs of college are surely an important piece of context.  

Kudos, then, to Charles Schwertner, the Republican state senator from Georgetown, whose op-ed against tuition deregulation, at TribTalk, is completely commendable:   

At the time, supporters of the move argued that deregulation would drive students to consider which university offered the best educational value for their dollar and force schools to compete on the basis of quality and affordability. While the underlying concept of deregulation makes sense in more traditional free markets, proponents of the law in Texas failed to take a key factor into account: the explosion of readily accessible student loan debt.

In Schwertner’s analysis, rising tuition costs aren’t the only ill effect of tuition deregulation; also salient are rising debt burdens among student borrowers. The latter trend is salient, and deserves attention, because student debt is so often a burden for the borrower. And, as Schwertner argues, easy access to student loans helps explain why deregulation is a dangerous approach to higher education. In a traditional free market system, consumer decisions are driven by a number of factors, including prices. Heavily promoted (and sometimes subsidized) education loans distort those signals, especially when the borrowers are 18 year olds raised to believe that a college education is crucial to their success. 

The op-ed avoids some of the more contentious arguments that have been marshalled against tuition deregulation. Conservatives have also argued that the market ethos doesn’t work well when applied to college tuition because, as Tony McDonald argued in 2009, university regents are still government bureaucrats, not accountable to consumers or voters. A different spin on that argument is that higher education, in Texas, is oligopolistic; the state’s top public universities could hike tuition to $50,000 a year and still fill their freshman classes twice. Further, by triggering a rise in tuition costs, the 2003 deregulation has arguably forestalled equity improvements; a new study finds that more Hispanic first-time college students would have enrolled between 2003 and 2007 if not for the swelling prices. And then there are the questions of what the university administrators are actually doing with the money: UT Austin may be twice as expensive as it was ten years ago, but is it twice as good? 

All of these points are valid. But Schwertner’s approach is the best I’ve seen to the subject lately–it’s grounded in the key evidence and builds to a couple of conclusions that conservatives and liberals alike can agree on, and should take seriously: 

Texas simply cannot maintain a strong economy without also maintaining a strong workforce, and we cannot maintain a strong workforce without affordable access to higher education. Attending one of our world-class public universities shouldn’t be a luxury afforded only to the wealthy or those willing to mortgage their futures by assuming massive student loan debt.