Wed March 4, 2015 3:09 pm By Erica Grieder

This afternoon, Jose Menendez, a Democratic state representative from San Antonio, is being sworn into the Texas Senate as the successor to Leticia Van de Putte. The latter, of course, was the Democratic nominee for lieutenant-governor in 2014, but since she drew a four-year term after the 2012 elections, her senate seat was not open until her decision to retire from the Lege triggered a special election, which was held January 6th, Menendez was the runner-up in that election, and proceeded to win in a runoff against Trey Martinez Fischer, another Democratic state representative who sent a very pointed email to his supporters yesterday about the results of the runoff. As Martinez Fischer noted, he had lost the runoff by 4,253 votes. The explanation, he continued, was that 6.307 Republicans—defined as, people who voted in at least two of the three Republican primaries held in 2010, 2012, or 2014–turned out for the runoff:

What is even more bizarre than 6,307 consistent Republican primary voters getting involved in a race between two Democrats, is that there were 2,000 more votes cast by Republicans in the February runoff than in the January special election when there were actually 2 Republican candidates in the race.
It seems Republicans were really worried about Democrats sending the strongest voice to the State Senate.  And that is why the Republican attack group TLR spent over a million dollars attacking me and endorsing my opponent.
This might be a sore-loser thing to do, especially on the eve of the swearing-in ceremony. But Martinez Fischer is making a fair point, and one that Democrats should consider. It’s not necessarily the case that the 6,307 voters mentioned are all Ted Cruz supporters, as Martinez Fischer suggests later in the email. I’d like to think that some of them, at least, are just Texans who’ve cottoned on to the fact that in 2010, 2012, and 2014, the Republican primaries were, for the most part, more important than the corresponding general elections. The circumstantial evidence, however, supports Martinez Fischer’s contention that these voters supported Menendez, by and large. In the House, as political scientist Mark P. Jones explained in December, Menendez posted a more moderate record than Martinez Fischer, “a quintessential Texas liberal.” Both candidates made an issue of Menendez’s relative centrism during the runoff: Menendez promised to work with the Republican majority, and Martinez Fischer warned that he would. And as Martinez Fischer notes, the number of Republicans who voted in the runoff was greater than the number who voted for the two Republicans who ran in the special election itself. 
This doesn’t mean that Menendez’s victory is illegitimate or that he is somehow not a real Democrat. For a Republican voter, faced with a choice between two Democrats, it’s perfectly reasonable to support the more moderate one or the one more commmitted to bipartisanship. (Those are different traits, and the latter may have been more important in this district: Van de Putte was clearly one of the more progressive Democrats in the Lege, but she had a history of working across the aisle, including with Tea Party Republicans). And since the two Republicans in the special election amassed about 5,300 votes between them, that’s probably part of the explanation for Menendez’s victory: the Texas electorate skews to the center, if not to the right.  
But the uptick in total turnout among consistent Republican primary voters between the election and the runoff is, as Martinez Fischer says, unusual and suggestive, and it underlines several points that R.G. made in his post about Battleground Texas last week. It would be perfectly reasonable for partisan Democrats to wish that a more assertive partisan had won, especially with redistricting on the horizon; to put it differently, if Democrats are waiting until conditions favor their candidates in statewide races, they’re missing opportunities to foster such conditions. And the results of this runoff are symptomatic of a more general problem for Texas Democrats. To the extent that the party has infrastructure, Martinez Fischer has access to it. He is one of the least politically apathetic Democrats in the Lege; if he couldn’t marshall the resources to fight off the Republican machine in a Democratic district holding a runoff election between two Democrats, that suggests a problem with the available Democratic infrastructure, rather than a failure of will or focus on his part.  
Tue March 3, 2015 4:18 pm By R.G. Ratcliffe

Fat is not where it’s at, according Dr. David Lakey, who recently stepped down as the state health commissioner. Lakey told the House Public Health Committee today that diabetes from obesity currently is costing the state economy $9 billion a year, but he predicted that will grow to $30 billion by 2030.

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Tue March 3, 2015 10:09 am By R.G. Ratcliffe

State expenditures adjusted for inflation and population growth

Texans historically are misers when it comes to state spending. They applauded Governor William “Pass the Biscuits Pappy” Lee O’Daniel in 1939 when he vetoed funding to build new state hospitals and asylums for the insane and slashed the public safety budget in half, a cut so deep that Texas Rangers had to borrow bullets from the highway patrol. Little wonder that the past decade of budget and tax cuts have caused scarce consternation among the populace.

A Republican legislator once told me he opposed tax increases in times of revenue shortfalls because once the tax increase was in place it did not go away, even when the economy rebounded to restore funding for state programs. That certainly was the approach in the 2011 session as lawmakers dealt with a major shortfall, but now that times are flush again, Governor Greg Abbott has asked state agencies to cut their budgets by 10 percent while Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and the Senate are pressing for public school property tax cuts that will have to be made up from state funding.

What has been established since 2003 is a cycle of ratcheting state government down in staffing and services. Small-government conservatives are sure to welcome, but it also has set up a cycle of penny-wise, pound-foolish governing. The cost of this frugality may run into the billions of dollars.

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Tue March 3, 2015 7:37 am By Paul Burka

It is with considerable sadness that I received the news of the death of Robert Landis Armstrong, a former commissioner of the General Land Office, who was a major force in bringing about the addition of Big Bend Ranch State Park to the Texas Parks & Wildlife System. (TEXAS MONTHLY was an early champion of the  effort to make Big Bend Ranch part of the state park system.)  As my colleague R.G. Ratcliffe noted yesterday, Armstrong was a widely liked and respected Democratic legislator from Austin, who would qualify as a gentle giant. He gained local fame by having the queso dip at Matt’s El Rancho Restaurant named for him. I knew him very well, as he occupied an office not far from the space where I began my tenure in the Capitol.

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Mon March 2, 2015 9:15 pm By Erica Grieder

On Friday evening, Dan Patrick’s office sent an announcement: on March 2nd the lieutenant governor, along with Senator Charles Schwertner and “other senators”, would hold a press conference on the subject of Medicaid flexibility. The topic was an intriguing one. Texas, of course, is one of the states that has declined to expand Medicaid under the provisions of the Affordable Care Act. Efforts to consider the subject, in 2013, were unceremoniously squashed, and nothing has happened in the interim that would make Texas more receptive to the federal government’s preferences. Schwertner, who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services committee, dismissed the idea bluntly months ago: “expanding Medicaid in its current form is a nonstarter for Texas.” Plus the date, March 2nd, was a dead giveaway.

The press conference confirmed the Senate’s position: Texas will not expand Medicaid in its current form. The idea of doing so, Schwertner added, “is simply not worth discussing.” And if the president doesn’t like that, apparently, it’s incumbent on him to be flexible. Patrick and Schwertner produced a letter to Barack Obama, signed by all 20 Senate Republicans, laying out their list of demands. They want the federal government to give Texas the latitude to implement ten reforms (“at minimum”) in the current Medicaid program, then, and only then, Texas would come back to the table—maybe.

It was an aggressive approach, considering that the Texas Senate can’t force the federal government to accept its conditions; but a defensible one.

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