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?

Wed January 21, 2015 10:08 pm By Paul Burka

The death of the two-thirds rule was inevitable from the moment that Dan Patrick defeated David Dewhurst in the primary. Patrick has always opposed the rule, even before he became a senator. The Democrats’ reduced strength in the Senate made it all but impossible for the remaining members of their party to muster the ability to fend off the majority (one Democrat, Eddie Lucio Jr., joined the Republicans in the vote).

I have always been a fan of the two-thirds rule because it gave the minority a fighting chance to take on the majority and it required a level of bridge-building and consensus to pass legislation. On a more basic level, it imposed “adult behavior on people who might be otherwise inclined.” Unfortunately for the Democrats, their party just doesn’t have the numbers to fend off the majority, so Patrick doesn’t have to worry about bridge-building, consensus, or adult behavior as the presiding officer.

Tue January 20, 2015 10:53 pm By Paul Burka

That is how I felt about the inauguration of Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. The crowds were modest, at best, on the south lawn of the Capitol for the actual swearing-in. During the parade down Congress Avenue that followed, I saw mostly empty sidewalks with only a few onlookers. Perhaps they were all at Zilker Park enjoying the afternoon instead? Or perhaps I should not have been surprised. After all, nobody voted in the election, so why should anyone expect people to attend the parade?

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Tue January 20, 2015 2:13 pm By Erica Grieder

As of today, Texas has a new governor and lieutenant governor for the first time this century in Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick respectively. Thus far, Abbott’s administration can be described as efficient and punctual: the inauguration ceremony proceeded smoothly and took just an hour, despite two longish speeches from both men. 

No one who followed the campaign trail would have been surprised by either. Patrick’s, which came first, felt like a sermon, perhaps because he began with a profession of faith. (Actually, technically speaking, he began with a selfie, but then moved on to church business.) “I respect all faiths and religions, but I am a Christian first, a conservative second and a Republican third,” said Patrick; that was a variation on a line he often used on the campaign trail, and he proceeded in campaign mode. There was no acknowledgement of his predecessors; instead, Patrick said, exhorting the audience to a little call-and-response, it was “a new day” in Texas. His goal, as he put it, is to be “the best lieutenant governor in the history of Texas,” and re-upped his campaign pledges to secure the border, lower property and business taxes, and advance educational reforms such as school choice, among other things.

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