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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Mon January 19, 2015 3:38 pm By Erica Grieder

Those of you who arrive at Texas Monthly directly via BurkaBlog might have missed a column we posted over the weekend from the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s John Daniel Davidson, offering a critical look at the economic argument for Medicaid expansion in Texas. Here it is; of particular note, I think, is Davidson’s point (citing Harvard economist Katherine Baicker) that whether you’re for Medicaid expansion or agin it, it’s supposed to be a health care program, not a jobs program. (I say “of particular note” because of this morning’s email blast from Progress Texas, subject line “On First Day, Greg Abbott Can Create 300,000 Jobs”—no, no he can’t, actually.)

In any case, I would guess many of you would disagree with Davidson, and encourage you to do so in the comments. (We’ll no doubt host some arguments for Medicaid expansion as the session goes on, as we did in 2013.)

Tue January 13, 2015 5:07 pm By Erica Grieder

Joe StrausNotwithstanding the fact that Republicans once again won all the major statewide elections in November, 2015 will be marked by major transitions in Texas politics and public life. We’re inaugurating a new governor next week, for the first time in 14 years, and a new lieutenant governor, for the first time in twelve. We know who the new leaders will be, at least–Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick, respectively– if not how they will compare to their predecessors, Rick Perry and David Dewhurst. The same won’t be true in March, when Richard Fisher retires as president of the Dallas Fed after nearly a decade in that role, and when my great colleague and friend Paul Burka retires after forty years of covering politics for Texas Monthly.

That sense of transition was inescapable today. The first day of the 84th Legislature, like the first days of all regular sessions, included its fair share of photo shoots and ceremonial asides. But the Texas Senate’s business included a resolution honoring Dewhurst, gaveling in for the last time. And in the House, which held its first contested race for Speaker in forty years, a number of representatives warned that the state itself may be at a critical moment.

“The Texas Miracle is anything but a miracle,” said Ken Sheets, a Republican representative from Dallas. “It is a product of governing,” according to conservative principles. And those principles matter more than ever, he added, at a time when the state has to deal with a growing population, a growing economy, and increasing global competition. Four Price, a Republican from Amarillo, argued that Texas’s success matters across the country: “We remain the economic engine on which so many others rely.” Matt Krause, a Republican from Fort Worth, concurred. “The eyes of America are on us,” he said. “Who is going to captain this venerated vessel?” Rene Oliveira, a Democrat from Brownsville, offered a maritime analogy of his own: “Now more than ever, we need a seasoned skipper at the helm.” 

Oliveira, like Price and Sheets, was speaking in favor of Joe Straus, the incumbent speaker, as seasoned skipper. Most of their colleagues, Democrats and Republicans alike, agreed: when the time came to vote the board lit up with 127 red votes for Straus, compared to 19 for Scott Turner, the Tea Party-type challenger. In fairness, Turner won more votes than most watchers would have guessed as recently as yesterday. Still, Straus’s re-election was a foregone conclusion, and this whole “speaker’s race” served to reinforce his standing rather than chip away at it. Based on the results the Tea Party, or whatever we’re calling it these days, has even fewer votes in the House than the Democrats do.

More significantly, perhaps, most of the various interest groups and individuals opposing Straus came out of the debate looking vapid. It was possible to make a substantive case for Turner. The evidence was that one supporter did so. In seconding the nomination, Krause explicitly addressed qualms about Turner’s experience and policy knowledge that had been raised by Giovanni Capriglione, the Tea Party representative who publicly broke with his cohort over the speaker question in November. He made a case for Turner rather than simply against Straus.  

The rest of the insurrectionists didn’t. Bryan Hughes, reflecting on the origins of the job, described the medieval context which led the House of Commons to appoint a representative to speak to the king: “Seven of these men actually did lose their heads, because the king didn’t like what they said.” Jeff Leach argued that based on the November elections, it’s apparent that Texans want conservative leadership, not centrists. That was a fair observation, but not necessarily a relevant one, given the state constitution’s provision that the Speaker of the House be elected by the members of the Texas House. Neither line of argument, meanwhile, was about Turner specifically, and after the vote, it was impossible to say what the animating ideal had been: personal antipathy to Straus? Or a general ethos of anti-incumbency? The latter, at least, has an element of adventure and spontaneity. But after all the turnover of the 2014 elections, the Lege is apparently looking for a little more stability. 

(AP | Eric Gay)

Mon January 12, 2015 10:35 am By Paul Burka

I joined the staff of TEXAS MONTHLY on October 1, 1974, and after much consideration, I have decided to retire in March. I have had a rich and rewarding forty-year career as senior executive editor of TEXAS MONTHLY and have been enabled by my editors to do what I love most: cover Texas politics. I will continue to be engaged with TEXAS MONTHLY on several fronts, including coverage of the 84th Legislature. But the time has come for Sarah and me to move on to the next chapter of our lives.

I am proud of the fact that my colleagues and I created one of the most impactful stories that has influenced Texas journalism: the compilation of the “Ten Best and Ten Worst Texas Legislators.” I am grateful to my incredibly talented colleagues who joined me in covering the Legislature over the years, to my editors who have enabled me to pursue the fascinating world of Texas politics, and above all to the readers of BurkaBlog. Thank you for reading.

If you’d like to see the email that my editor, Brian Sweany, sent to the staff this morning, keep reading after the jump:

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Wed January 7, 2015 3:31 pm By Erica Grieder

Yesterday, in response to the speaker’s race in the US House, I argued that such staged purity tests are risky for the Tea Party-type groups that insist on them, for several reasons. Ross Ramsey, at the Texas Tribune, also has some cautionary words for the would-be insurgents. I broadly agree with his analysis and want to underline one point. In Ross’s view, the substantive problem with these Tea Party v RINO fights is that the Republican party itself has assimilated some of the issues that initially galvanized the Tea Party, leaving the factions to argue over more marginal issues:

Since the Tea Party wave that surfaced in April 2009 and crested in the 2010 general elections, the GOP — at both the state and national levels — has appropriated enough of the movement’s ideas to insulate itself from the renegades within its ranks. What might have become a third party has instead been assimilated by the establishment, and for all but a small number of conservatives who remain unhappy with the GOP, there is no need to shop around.

This is especially true in Texas, for two reasons.

1) Our Republicans were conservative enough to begin with. They didn’t appropriate the movement’s ideas; in some cases they generated them. At the time the Tea Party coalesced, in 2009, Texas had been led conservatively, by conservatives for more than a decade. Our Republican incumbents had already been going after federal officials, including Republicans, including former governor George W Bush, for years. “George has never, ever been a fiscal conservative,” said Perry in December 2007, two months after attorney general Greg Abbott sent Ted Cruz to the Supreme Court to argue Medellin v Texas.

2) The apparent inability of Texas Democrats to do anything ever means that there is no pressing incentive for most Texas Republicans to pander to centrists, and they rarely do.

Tea Party Republicans in Texas, then, are in an even more thankless position than their national counterparts when it comes to challenging the “moderates” in their own party. To establish their credentials as the more conservative option they can either adopt genuinely extreme positions or they can fight over scraps. To their credit, most of them eschew the extremist route, but the result is that the Tea Party Republicans in Texas often end up championing weird little causes, like “the Senate should use a 60% rule rather than the two-thirds rule, because 67% is for squishes.” Having campaigned on such issues for several cycles now, the insurgents have convinced a lot of primary voters that such issues matter; they have made themselves vulnerable to the narcissism of small differences. At times they remind me of this penguin.

These exercises in esoterica may work in primaries. But life is a long game. A few days after winning the special election for Glenn Hegar’s senate seat, for example, Lois Kolkhorst told the Houston Chronicle that she was definitely looking to modify the Texas “DREAM Act”—either to repeal it or to toughen its standards. Prior to the election, though, she pledged to repeal the law. It was a seemingly political calculation; her opponent had made an issue of the fact that she voted for the law in the first place, in 2001. But now Kolkhorst is stuck with the consequences. If she pushes for reform, rather than repeal, she can expect a backlash from the base. If she pushes for repeal, she can be the senator who trashed a pretty good law, a law she once supported. Seems a little thankless, doesn’t it?