Mon April 27, 2015 10:28 am By R.G. Ratcliffe

At the Tax Day Capitol rally earlier this month, Representative Jonathan Stickland demonstrated why the hard-core tea party members of the House can’t gain traction with enough mainstream Republican members to get anything substantial accomplished.

Stickland complained to the crowd that legislation in the House was being “micromanaged” to delay bills, including proposals to revoke in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, to allow the so-called constitutional carry of handguns, and to eliminate toll roads. “Conservative legislation is dying every single minute that ticks by, and we’re not going to take it any more, are we?” intoned Stickland, the Howard Beale of the Texas Legislature. Complaining about the leadership and bills stuck in committee is every member’s right. But then came the part of Stickland’s speech that distances the hard-core from the mainstream. 

“Everybody sounds like a tea party Reagan conservative during the election process, but when we force votes on this Texas House and we force representatives to pick a side, it lets you know back at home what’s really happening here in Texas,” Stickland said. “We are going to find conservatives to challenge RINOs in the Texas House.”

So much for Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment not to speak ill of other Republicans. Stickland declared war and promised re-election fights for the mainstream House leadership Republicans.

Contrary to the dreams of Stickland and other tea party activists, an analysis of the 2012 elections tells me the tea party has peaked in the gains it has made in the Legislature and actually may face setbacks in 2016. If the GOP primary between Ted Cruz and David Dewhurst is any indication, tea party strength in the Legislature has peaked.

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Thu April 23, 2015 8:01 pm By Erica Grieder

As we all know, thanks to R.G., shots were fired at yesterday’s weekly statewide bigwig breakfast meeting, with Dan Patrick ultimately objecting that Greg Abbott and Joe Straus were “picking on” him. Among the issues of contention, bizarrely, was the Lege’s push to expand pre-K. Doing so is a stated priority of the governor. A bill to that effect passed the House several weeks ago with broad bipartisan support after substantive debate about the size and scope of the proposal. Its companion legislation, similarly, is expected to pass the Senate. And so Abbott, as R.G. reports, was not amused at the broadside issued Tuesday by the Lieutenant Governor’s Grassroots Advisory Board.

Patrick had swiftly issued a statement disavowing any prior knowledge of the council’s letter and expressing his support for “a pre-K program”–hence his dismay, presumably, that Abbott would still be irritated the following morning. Today the Lege was full of rumors about what Patrick knew and when he knew it, but I doubt we’ll ever know the truth, and don’t think it matters. Even if he was blindsided by the letter, he was the one who noisily established the advisory board and empowered the grassroots activists in question to represent themselves as his official advisors. At the same time I don’t see why he would have encouraged them to send this particular letter. As I suggested in my post about the Senate’s vouchers proposal, conservative advocates for education reform fall into two camps. Some, probably the majority, want to improve public education. Others want to end it. Those in the latter camp are a problem for people in the former, like Patrick.  

His grassroots advisors seem to be in the latter camp. The letter is basically a collage of internet rumors, backwards reasoning, paranoid suppositions and lies, marshalled to make the case against a relatively modest proposal to authorize an additional $130 million to expand Texas’s longstanding public pre-K program so that thousands of students who aren’t currently eligible will have the option of attending. The Grassroots Advisory Board elides the “optional” aspect: “This interference by the State tramples upon our parental rights.” It misrepresents Dan Huberty, the author of the House bill. He did say, during the House debate, that Texas hasn’t been able to assess the outcomes of its current program, but he wasn’t saying that outcomes don’t matter. He was explaining why his bill requires school districts to provide such data, as a condition of participation—in other words, he was saying the opposite. (Abbott, similarly, has always insisted on accountability measures in this context; that’s why Wendy Davis charged him with trying to subject 4-year-olds to standardized tests.)

It would be a long and thankless task to fully annotate the letter, so I’ll just summarize the argument: according to the Grassroots Advisory Board, the state’s effort to expand pre-K is part of a long tradition (“historically promoted in socialistic countries, not free societies which respect parental rights”) in which governments seek to remove children (“even younger and more malleable” children as socialism creeps across the land) from their parents’ care and install them in a “Godless environment” and mold them according to the government’s own preferences.

Their overarching concern is one that most Texans share: “TEXAS LEGISLATURE SHOULD PROMOTE HEALTHY FAMILIES, NOT BREAK THEM UP.” Many of us, however, would be hard-pressed to explain how expanding access to public pre-K is an effort to break up healthy families, or how doing so would be “sending a message to the rest of the Nation that parents do not or cannot care for their children as well as the State can.” I was confused by this line of argument the first time I heard it too. Over the years, however, I’ve puzzled out the reasoning, if we can call it that:

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Thu April 23, 2015 9:10 am By R.G. Ratcliffe

Democrat Bill Hobby was Texas lieutenant governor when the current cap on state spending became law during the seventies. Hobby, in an op-ed in today’s Houston Chronicle, contends that proposals for additional caps go too far and would harm the state’s ability to recover from recession cuts. He is particularly critical of SB 9 by Kelly Hancock. The entire piece is worth a read, but here’s an excerpt:

But at the same time, SB 9 and other proposals made by Senate leadership would exempt certain items from the cap, such as tax “rebates” or general revenue appropriations that would be used to pay down state debt. So the overall result would be a tighter cap with more loopholes. Not surprisingly, this has drawn criticism from fiscal conservatives who see the Senate exemptions as “gimmicks” that threaten fiscal discipline.

The House, meanwhile, has not seriously entertained any spending cap changes as ideologically motivated as SB 9. But one proposal by the House transportation chair would constitutionally dedicate some existing general tax revenue to highways, in effect creating a way around the spending cap while further limiting future legislatures’ budget flexibility. The House’s chief budget writer has yet another constitutional amendment that would have the effect of exempting some state debt service from the spending cap.

In my legislative experience, one person’s worthwhile exception is another person’s gimmicky loophole. If exceptions for tax cuts or debt payments are such a good idea, why not make exceptions for education or border policing or mental health?

There will be a tendency to dismiss Hobby as a big-spending Democrat. I couldn’t find earlier numbers, but during Hobby’s final years in office when the state was in a recession, the budget grew by less than 5 percent. So even if, in the end, you don’t agree with Hobby, his arguments are well worth considering.

Wed April 22, 2015 3:45 pm By R.G. Ratcliffe

greg abbott dan patrick joe straus breakfast blowup

The weekly kumbaya breakfast between the big three Texas lawmakers broke down today into a round-robin of recriminations that concluded with Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick declaring he was tired of Governor Greg Abbott and Speaker Joe Straus “picking on me.”

The blow-up, confirmed by multiple sources, represents the boiling point of long-simmering disputes. The House has been upset that Patrick declared his inauguration marked a “New Day” in Texas and that he pushed a conservative agenda quickly through the Senate with expectations that the House would just pass his legislation. But, instead, most of the Senate’s bills on tax cuts, licensed open carry of handguns and moving the Public Integrity Unit have languished in the House without even being referred to committee by Straus.

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Wed April 22, 2015 10:14 am By R.G. Ratcliffe

In autumn 1986, Governor Mark White was facing something of a recall of his own when we visited the Blue Bell Creameries in Brenham.

About a year earlier, Saudi Arabia had glutted the world oil market driving crude prices down to the point of crashing the Texas economy. The bust also crashed the state budget, which suddenly had a $3.5 billion hole in revenue. White proposed solving the budget crisis with a combined set of budget cuts and a one-cent increase in the sales tax. Quoting Sam Houston, White told the Legislature to do right and risk the consequences.

“Some say this may cost us our jobs…and it might. I ‘ll accept that challenge, and I’ll accept the consequences,” White said. “This will not be our Alamo. This will be our San Jacinto.”

And if the folks back home wanted to blame someone for higher taxes, White told lawmakers they could “blame me.”

The Legislature eventually passed $582 million in cuts and a temporary increase in the state sales tax rate from 4 1/8 percent to 5 ¼ percent. (Note: that’s a smaller sales tax rate than the House is now proposing in its cuts.) The remaining $2.8 billion deficit was pushed to the 1987 Legislature.

The vote occurred during a special session in September. White had to scramble, with less than two months to go to the general election where he was being challenged by “No-new-taxes” former Governor Bill Clements, a Republican. The Democratic core vote in 1986 remained in the countryside. White and his contingent of aides and traveling political reporters started crisscrossing parts of the state that rarely see a statewide candidate today.

After a meeting with locals at an outdoor rally in Brenham, White offered to take questions from the news media. I’m not sure who started it, but one reporter began a chant of “Blue Bell, Blue Bell, Blue Bell.” We all picked it up, because, at our core, reporters are just dangerous children. White seemed momentarily confused, until one in the pack said something like, “We want to go to the Blue Bell creamery for ice cream.” White paused for a moment and then said that sounded pretty good to him.

So the entire travelling squad moved over to Blue Bell. One of the family member owners greeted White. Politician that he is, White introduced himself and said he’d like his vote. The owner smiled and replied that he and all his family were Republicans but ice cream is nonpartisan. So he welcomed White and invited him in for a tour and a tasting.

That was the last sweet spot of the campaign for Mark White. The voters did blame him for the tax increase that November and sent him back into the private practice of law.

Now that Blue Bell is facing its own public relations crisis by doing right and risking consequences in recalling its products because of the possibility of listeria, let’s hope they fare better than Mark White did that year. Ice cream is nonpartisan, and we should be able to vote with our mouths.