Sun August 2, 2015 10:18 am By Erica Grieder

The showdown between Greg Abbott and the Legislative Budget Board can be summarized as follows: this is a separation of powers case. And it’s a substantive and provocative case, to boot. To give a quick summary, the debate concerns Abbott’s line-item vetos to the state’s biennial budget, which the governor signed June 20th, after whittling it down by about $300m, mostly by cutting appropriations for state facilities.

Last month Ursula Parks, the director of the Legislative Budget Board, sent a letter to Glenn Hegar, the comptroller, arguing that a number of Abbott’s line-item vetoes exceeded his constitutional authority, and therefore were invalid. Briefly put, LBB’s argument is that although the governor can veto items of appropriation, he can’t veto the budget riders that direct portions of those appropriations for, say, a new parking garage; those line-item vetoes should be ignored, Parks says, and the comptroller should go ahead and release the funds as appropriated by the Lege. The governor’s office, naturally, disagrees. Their reasoning, as summarized in a brief memo written prior to the vetoes and detailed in the 62-page brief I mentioned Friday, is that the aforementioned budget riders are functionally equivalent to items of appropriation, and that the Lege is trying to use “magic words” to protect its parking garages and whatnot from the governor’s veto pen.

After puzzling over these documents, I think the LBB is correct, and also that I wouldn’t want to get caught in a courtroom fight with these Abbott attorneys. (I’ll explain why in a separate post, though.) First I’d like to deal with the side drama that was spurred by the substantive dispute. Ultimately, Dan Patrick’s adverse reaction to Parks’s memo tells us nothing about the constitutional question. But it does tell us something about Patrick.

Necessary context first: Per the Texas Constitution, the lieutenant governor is a statewide elected official, elected separately from the governor, whose office is part of the executive branch. In addition, Texas’s lieutenant governor is the president of the state senate. In some contexts, his role corresponds directly to that of the Speaker of the Texas House; Patrick and Joe Straus are, for example, the joint chairs of the Legislative Budget Board.  In some respects, however, the lieutenant governor’s control over the upper chamber exceeds the speaker’s control over the lower one. In the House, for example, a pair of committees—Calendars and Local & Consent—schedule bills to be heard on the floor; Straus appoints the members of these committees, and can exert some pressure on them, but not to a despotic degree. The Senate has a quasi-corresponding intent calendar, but the lieutenant governor decides the order in which bills are heard on the floor, or whether they are heard on the floor at all.

This hybrid legislative-executive role helps explain why the lieutenant governor is sometimes described as the most powerful statewide official in Texas. It does not help explain Patrick’s inexplicable response to the LBB memo.

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Sat August 1, 2015 2:54 pm By Erica Grieder

WFAA reports that a Collin County grand jury has indicted Ken Paxton on several felony charges. The charges, per WFAA, will be unsealed on Monday, so it’s unclear what he’ll be charged with, but we can make some educated guesses (SEE UPDATE, BELOW):

Special prosecutors in the Paxton case told News 8 they planned to present a third-degree charge of failing to register with the state securities board, as the law requires. They also said they planned to present a first degree felony charge against Paxton accusing him of securities fraud. All indications are that charge is related to Servergy, a McKinney-based company that has been under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

As WFAA notes, Paxton can continue to serve under indictment, as his predecessor Jim Mattox did back in the 1980s, and as Rick Perry did more recently. Like all indicted people, Paxton should be considered innocent until proven guilty, and the Perry example illustrates why Texas law is so sanguine about indicted officials. Our former governor was indicted on charges of coercion and abuse of power in 2014; the former charge was thrown out by a state appeals court last week, and I would be shocked if a jury finds him guilty of the latter. Paxton, however, is unlikely to be so lucky. 

Will the public pay attention, though? The potential third-degree felony charge they mention is, again, the one that Paxton admitted to more than a year ago. Here, again, is what I wrote about it at the time. Here’s what Jay Root wrote about it at the time, May 2014, for the Texas Tribune. Here’s Christy Hoppe, with the Dallas Morning News, on how the McKinney police reacted to the news, more than a year ago. Here’s Joshua Fechter, San Antonio Express-News, writing in May 2014 about a complaint filed with the national Securities and Exchange Commission, days after Paxton was reprimanded by the state Securities Board.

I could go on, but I think the point is clear enough. Paxton admitted to a felony before he was elected attorney general—before he even won the Republican nomination, in fact. This was widely documented in the Texas press at the time. That didn’t stop Paxton from winning the primary runoff in late May, buoyed by a pseudo-endorsement from Ted Cruz and the Texas conservative grassroots’ unhinged animus against anyone—in this case, state representative Dan Branch—with a known professional or personal association with Joe Straus. 

In other words, our attorney general isn’t the political equivalent of a lemon. It was a matter of public record, during his campaign for statewide office, that Paxton could easily face felony charges while serving as Texas’s top law enforcement official, or—best case scenario, if you believe his spokesman, Anthony Holm—that Paxton’s election would leave Texas with an attorney general who commits the occasional felony by accident, and gets away with nothing more than a formal reprimand from the state Securities Board because no one bothers to follow up with the prosecutors.

The good news is that, as far as anyone knows, Paxton’s travails are Paxton’s alone; the charges relate to his private legal practice. Texas still has a competent attorney general’s office, with plenty of talent in critical roles, including Scott Keller as solicitor general; Bernard McNamee as chief of staff; Chip Roy as first assistant attorney general; and David Maxwell as director of law enforcement, among others, not to mention countless attorneys and other professionals who work for the office, rather than whoever happens to be the attorney general at the time. The bad news? We get the elected officials we deserve. I’d like to think Texas deserves better. In 2014, a majority of voters decided we did not. 

UPDATE: Manny Fernandez, at the New York Times, reports that Paxton will face three charges: one for the aforementioned failure to register as an investment advisor representative, which is a third-degree felony, and two for securities fraud, a first-degree felony. 

Fri July 31, 2015 3:38 pm By Erica Grieder

No good deed goes unpunished. As a result of my stated interest in the ongoing showdown between Governor Greg Abbott and the Legislative Budget Board, I am now in possession of a 62-page-long document related to the situation, which I should probably read before weighing in further.

Since I promised you all a new post today, though, I’ll offer a brief comment on Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, as a Collin County grand jury is expected to start hearing evidence against him imminently, and may soon charge him with securities fraud. My full comments will be in a forthcoming issue of the magazine, and so my brief comment is just this: if you are surprised that Texas’s new attorney general was under investigation less than three months after he was sworn in as the state’s top law enforcement official, you have only yourself to blame, because Paxton (literally) admitted to a third-degree felony more than a year ago, between the Republican primary and the Republican primary runoff, as it happens. 

With that said, if the current proceedings have finally piqued your interest in potentially felonious attorneys-general of Texas, you may be interested in a couple of pieces from our archives. I’d recommend “The Man in the Black Hat,” Paul Burka’s National Magazine Award-winning 1984 two-parter on Clinton Manges, a crony of Jim Mattox (who was elected attorney general in 1982, indicted in 1983, acquitted in 1985, and re-elected, to acclaim, in 1986). Less favored by fate was Mattox’s successor, Dan Morales, who made it through his time in office okay but later saw his political future go up in smoke after pleading guilty, in 2003, to conspiracy and other crimes related to his work related to the state’s tobacco settlement. Lou Dubose laid out the story in this 2002 piece: “So What’s the Truth About Dan Morales?”

Thu July 30, 2015 3:39 pm By Erica Grieder

Apparently it’s easier than I thought to get a conspiracy theory started. I’m referring, of course, to the idea that Texas Governor Greg Abbott is in cahoots with the Church of Scientology, which was picked up by the national press, in the guise of Newsweek, earlier today.

This rumor arose in relation to Abbott’s veto of Senate Bill 359, which would have given hospital staff—doctors and whatnot—the ability to detain patients for several hours, if personnel deemed them a threat to the public safety. For emphasis, let me say that again: as far as I can tell the rumor arose in relation to Abbott’s veto, not as a result of it; the veto statement was issued on June 2nd. The proximate cause of the conspiracy came on July 14th, about six weeks later, with a curious story in the Texas Tribune that heavily implied it was the opposition of the Church of Scientology, via a shell group masquerading as a human-rights outfit, that spurred Abbott to veto the legislation, which had sailed through the Lege without difficulty. On July 23rd, the editorial board of the Dallas Morning News chimed in, and now here we are.

My take is as follows: Come on. Abbott is a Catholic. If I had to guess he probably thinks less of Scientologists than of LULAC (another group that opposed the bill). He’s also an attorney who spent twelve years as attorney general of Texas prior to becoming governor and, as such, is probably familiar with the intermittently discouraging reality that even if someone is mentally ill, their civil rights can’t be arbitrarily abridged, despite the fact that their concerned loved ones might wish the opposite could be allowed, and despite the fact that many doctors would be glad to appropriate as much authority over other peoples’ affairs as the state would grant them. Occam’s razor, people.

Further, it doesn’t matter why Abbott vetoed the bill; he’s the governor, and the Texas Constitution gives him the authority to veto bills for any reason at all, whether it be constitutional principle, sheer malice, or that his hand slipped on the rubber veto stamp. The line-item veto, though: that’s another story. A story for tomorrow. Stay tuned. 

Thu July 23, 2015 4:03 pm By Erica Grieder

As most of you have no doubt heard, national embarrassment Donald Trump invaded Texas today, bound for the city of Laredo, which is no doubt feeling a pang of nostalgia for the days when it was an independent republic, vulnerable to Mexico and Texas but at least not to draft-dodging, profiteering scions of privilege from New York.

Trump may have been hoping for a warm welcome from Rick Perry, because—as Abby Johnston explained earlier this month—he is apparently doing his best to boost our former governor’s presidential prospects. Alas, Rick Perry is not having it. Neither is Judith Zaffirini, Laredo’s longtime state senator, although she did take the time to offer Trump some useful economic and cultural information, which I am sure he will read in an unbiased frame of mind.  

As for me, I’d like to add the following thoughts on Trump: Trump is a grotesque and repulsive clown. He is not worth my time, or yours. But if you insist on caring what he thinks about Laredo—a city that is home to a couple hundred thousand Texans, which was settled before the United States or Mexico were even countries, and which Donald Trump has been spewing lies about for weeks on the basis of no knowledge or personal experience, perhaps because he delusionally believes that by doing so he is putting himself in “great danger”—have at it in the comments.