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. 

Wed April 22, 2015 5:04 am By R.G. Ratcliffe

open carry texas

Senior House members who don’t like Representative Jonathan Stickland have taunted him this session. One senior Republican all but called Stickland a liar during a debate on a border security measure. During another debate, another senior Republican dragged a cookie on a string near Stickland, supposedly to lure the Bedford Republican away from the back microphone. But apparently he ate their lunch instead.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Bud Kennedy is reporting that Stickland may have pulled one over on the House and turned a licensed open carry of handguns bill into a just plain open carry bill, because police would no longer have the power to ask someone to show their handgun permit without cause: 

Instead of open carry, Texas just went wide open.

Anybody openly packing a handgun is no longer a police concern, at least not under an amendment passed 133-10 Monday by the Texas House.

See somebody with a gun?

Don’t bother dialing 911.

That’s right. Under House Bill 910, police are barred from asking anyone “whether a person possesses a handgun license.”

According to Kennedy, Stickland was the mastermind behind an amendment carried by Harold Dutton, a Democrat, and Matt Rinaldi, a Republican. The amendment is supposed to keep police from harassing law abiding handgun owners who are legally carrying them openly. But it effectively halts police from asking to see the license unless a person is acting suspiciously.

Stickland has been a proponent of what is called constitutional carry— anyone who can legally own a handgun can carry it openly. The legislation moving through the House and Senate allows open carry for only those persons who have had a criminal background check, been trained and received a license to carry from the Texas Department of Public Safety.

“We unintentionally just got unlicensed open carry,” Stickland told Kennedy. (Corrected: Bud tells me it was not a quote from Stickland. The full sentence from his story: “That was after a leader of the Dallas-based Come and Take It Texas open-carry group wrote on social media: ‘We unintentionally just got unlicensed open carry.’”)

Tue April 21, 2015 10:30 am By R.G. Ratcliffe

The Republican presidential candidates are collecting billionaires like squirrels hoarding nuts for winter. And this cache of cash may keep at least several campaigns politically viable until the Texas GOP presidential primary next March.

The money primary usually is the great winnower of presidential hopefuls. Candidates who come out of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina underfunded simply do not have the money for the stretch run and frequently drop out before Texans vote in March. The advent of super Pacs in 2012 started changing that, with candidates spending a combined $10 million on television ads ahead of the Iowa caucus alone. Rick Perry spent $2.86 million on Iowa television advertising

With the prospect that winning the nomination in 2016 could cost as much as $100 million apiece, the race is on for candidates to win over the billionaires—or as Molly Ivins would have called them, the oligarchs. White House hopefuls like Ted Cruz and Rick Perry are turning to people whose disposable income runs into the millions of dollars.

The billionaire buzz caught fire today with reports that the Koch brothers, Charles and David, were leaning to throwing their financial might behind Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. After listening to Walker speak at an exclusive New York gathering Monday, David Koch declared that Walker could defeat Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton in a general election, and Koch called Walker a “tremendous candidate.”  In a statement later Monday, Koch denied that he was endorsing any candidate for president. The Kochs have said they plan to spend $889 million during the 2016 election cycle to promote candidates and their small-government philosophy. If they jump into the GOP nominating process, they could be a game-changer for the candidate they back. Though their fortune comes from Kansas-based Koch Industries, the brothers own refineries, pipelines and chemical technology operations in Texas, as well as Georgia-Pacific and the Matador Cattle Company, which covers 130,000 acres in the Caprock area.  

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Mon April 20, 2015 7:41 pm By Erica Grieder

school vouchers texas

I have conflicting intuitions about education reform. Like most people who support free enterprise, I agree that competition is healthy and tends to improve overall outcomes. In the context of public education, however, we can’t be cavalier about the fact that competitions involve winners and losers. Some struggling schools may improve under competitive pressure, and those that fail may be replaced by more effective operations, but even if the process ultimately yields a better set of schools, the kids enrolled in the schools that finally fail will have been profoundly disadvantaged by the experience. And I don’t buy the argument that reform advocates are secretly hoping to get rid of “government schools” altogether; I think most reform advocates are in fact trying to improve public education, not end it. But having listened to a lot of testimony over the years, I’m aware that plenty of Texas parents would prioritize their own preferences over policies more likely to maximize the common good.

Plus, as a general matter, legislation should be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Even if the intentions are honorable, and the underlying principles widely shared, the bill itself may be awkwardly structured. The vouchers proposal that passed on first reading in the Senate this afternoon, for example, is conceptually sound enough but includes one provision which would, I think, effectively defeat the purpose.

The measure, authored by Larry Taylor, parallels one Dan Patrick fought for in 2013, when he was the chair of the Senate Education Committee. Basically, it proposes a tax credit for businesses that agree to allocate the corresponding amount of money to a statewide voucher fund instead. In the first year, up to $100 million in tax credits could be authorized, meaning that some 15,000 students could participate. The amount of tax credits allowed would grow each subsequent year, as would the number of students who could potentially participate in the program. The size of the scholarships would be capped at a proportion of the average statewide per capita spending on public schools—let’s call it about $6,000 a year at first, compared to about $8,000 for a public school student, for simplicity’s sake—meaning the state would save some money on each scholarship student.

The aforementioned bum provision relates to the eligibility criteria for students. To apply, a student must be in foster care, in institutional care, or have a household income not greater than 250 percent of the income guidelines necessary to qualify for the national free or reduced-price lunch program. At first glance, that sounds admirably egalitarian; it sounds as if these scholarships will go to genuinely disadvantaged students, many of whom are indeed trapped in failing schools. The problem is in the third provision. Per federal guidelines, a family of four with a household income of $44,000 qualifies for reduced lunch. The way this is written, a family of four would therefore be eligible for vouchers if their household income is up to $110,000 a year. But $110,000 is about double the state median income; kids from those households probably already have access to good public schools. And yet realistically those are the kids most likely to be the beneficiaries of such scholarships, if the bill becomes law as written. That’s fine if that’s the goal, but if the goal is to help poor black kids in inner-city Houston and poor Hispanic kids in the Rio Grande Valley, that’s not going to be accomplished by subsidizing yuppies in Plano. It would be better to ratchet down the criteria, so the only students eligible are the ones actually eligible for free or reduced lunch, as about half of all students in Texas public schools are.

With that minor revision, the bill would be a great way for Texas to experiment with a voucher program. Since the state has some five million children enrolled in public schools, the number of students affected would not amount to an accidental overnight overhaul of our extant approach to public education. At the same time, 15,000 students would benefit in a meaningful way. They would also make for a fairly good sample set, and if there is a measurable effect in their educational outcomes, reform advocates would be well positioned to advocate for an expansion of such programs. The tax credits themselves would not create a revenue hole, because the foregone revenue would be accompanied by a commensurate cut in spending requirements. All in all, worth a try.

One other thought, on reflection: the proposal was controversial in 2013, and although it passed the Senate easily enough today, on a mostly party-line vote, it will inevitably elicit more opposition in the House. It’s worth mentioning, then, that the bill may sound more sinister than it actually is. If so, it’s probably because Republicans keep describing it with euphemisms. The funding for the program, in their telling, would not be public money, because it would be generated by a tax credit, and therefore would never be collected by the state in the first place. Similarly, since the vouchers would not be funded by tax revenue, Taylor wants us to call them scholarships.

Both arguments are dubious. “Vouchers” may be controversial, but “scholarships” implies that the program seeks to differentiate between students on the basis of merit or financial need, and the Senate proposal is predicated on the opposite goal: Patrick has argued for years that all children deserve access to a good education; the whole purpose of vouchers is to empower parents, in practice, to differentiate between schools. And obviously a program funded by tax credits is a program funded by the state. Over the long term, I don’t see how it helps Republicans to argue over that point. The argument itself makes it sound like they’re trying to confuse people with gimmicks in an effort to score short-term political points. I realize that scoring such points may be the only thing that matters to many elected officials these days but it’s a little tiresome and dispiriting, especially when the overarching goal is an honorable one.

Or maybe I should put it this way. Patrick and the Senate can take credit for having done something today, but they have to choose their bragging rights. They can take credit for passing a bill that is projected to save the state $135 million in 2020 by cutting public school enrollment. Or they can take credit for giving some 20,000 students across the state of Texas a real and meaningful opportunity that may well change their lives. Either would count as an accomplishment. But the voucher is only good for one.